On Synchronicity and Other Variables

Blogfriend Matt Armstrong was recently featured at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy where he had a very thorough and well-considered op-ed on Information Operations and New Media. Pretty much everything Matt had to say were things the USG should be doing in attempting to craft some kind of coherent narrative of it’s national objectives, policies and values:


Insurgents and terrorists increasingly leverage New Media to shape perceptions around the globe to be attractive to some and intimidating to others. New Media collapses traditional concepts of time and space as information moves around the world in an instant. Unlike traditional media, search engines and the web in general, enable information, factual or not, to be quickly and easily accessed long after it was created.The result is a shift in the purpose of physical engagement to increasingly incorporate the information effect of words and deeds. Thus, the purpose of improvised explosive devices, for example, is not to kill or maim Americans but to replay images of David sticking it to Goliath.

The U.S. military is actively and aggressively revising its role in shaping its own narrative in cyberspace, but this is falling short. While the U.S. is finally coming to grips with the centrality of information and perceptions, it remains confused as to how to use information effectively. American responses seem to stem from the belief that the message and the messenger we are countering are the same without regard for the target audience, intent, or how the message fits into a larger narrative, which perhaps mirrors our own perception of information as propaganda. ….A famous dead Prussian once said that war is a continuation of politics by other means, but the reality today is that war is not part of political intercourse with foes but an orchestrated, if loosely, effort to gain strategic influence over friends, foes, and neutrals. YouTube, blogs, SMS and traditional media, make every GI Joe and Jihadi a communicator, public diplomat, and persuader. Our adversaries understand and exploit this reality. Writing to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri stated that “we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media [sic].”The U.S. military as reluctant heir to the information throne in an online world has several inherent challenges. First, operating in the environment of New Media requires awareness and agility inconsistent with the current organizational culture of the military. For example, in Iraq the military broke through the bureaucratic red-tape and started posting videos on YouTube. However, this small “victory” was incomplete: the group that uploaded to YouTube was still not permitted to view YouTube. In effect, they were posting information they were not authorized to see.”

Those quotes were snippets. Matt’s post is rich in detail and really requires being read in full.

I have tilted at the IO windmill a few times in the past. It’s a subject that is both easy as wel as difficult to analyze. Easy, because the USG has yet to initiate and/or master the fundamentals of good IO as Matt’s post makes clear ( there are genuine IO experts in the USG, perhaps even a large number of them, but the bureaucracies are not institutionally optimized to conduct IO with consistency or coordination) but difficult because the level of genuine sophistication and effective nuance in strategic communication remains so far off. Even if that level of “play” was achieved by our civil service and soldiers, any IO campaign could be undone in an instant by some clumsy action or statement from a political appointee or elected official concerned primarily with fellating some domestic special interest group.

Matt’s focus on “synchronicity” is apt. It will be a herculean task needing laser beam focus to get all of the USG players on the same message most of the time; even then some dissension and debate being showcased is itself a vital advertisement of the attractive nature of a liberal, open society and a sharp contrast with the dismally intolerant and brutally ignorant alternative our Islamist enemies have to offer. In pursuing that, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:

Credibility is the COIN of the Realm:

Matt touched on this but I want to give this principle added weight. For all our official, overt, communication by any spokesman representing the United States, the best long term strategy is a reputation of credibility. It may hurt to concede errors or enemy successes in the short run but having the global audience grdugingly concede that “the Americans speak the truth” adds momentum of every word, every idea and every action we undertake. It will not bring us love because oftentimes, our pursuing national interests will come at the expense of others but truth-telling will yield something more valuable, respect. No one cares to be treated as if they were a fool and most of the transparently self-serving gibberish official spokesmen offer up pays dividends only in contempt being added to the anger foreigners already feel at some of our policies. Credibility is to the war of ideas what COIN is to guerilla warfare and it is a valuable and exceedingly rare quality because once your credibility is lost, it is lost.

Without Attention Being Paid All Our efforts Are Useless:

Credibility is not enough. Key messages or memes also have to be interesting. If people are not psychologically engaged in the presentation then they are not hearing it, much less reaching the points of comprehension, sympathy or agreement. American popular culture and commercial advertising is nothing short of an unrelenting global juggernaut that is eroding traditional mores of every society with which it comes into contact, yet our official proclamations remain starkly uninteresting even to most Americans so why should a Yemeni teen-ager or Afghan farmer tune in to what we are selling ? As long as our attempts at capturing attention remain at the level of dull mediocrity we can expect to fail.

Influence is a Long Term Investment:

The 1980’s saw a march toward capitalism and democracy in part because we were reaping the harvest of decades of student visas, cultural and scientific exchanges and consistent public diplomacy outreach. From Mongolia to Czechoslovakia Chile there were reformers taking power who were ” Chicago Boys” who had imbibed free markets at the feet of Nobel laureates. The National Endowment for Democracy, the USIA, VOA, Radio Free Europe and NGO’s like the AFL-CIO whose efforts and programs abroad were robust and self-confident. American society was permitted by the USG to sell itself. These things cost pennies on the dollar compared to having to use hard power options and they lower our transaction costs when sanctions or military intervention is the order of the day.

Deception is Best Left to the Clandestine Operators :

HUMINT based strategic influence efforts, black propaganda and disinformation and various arts of deception will be better left to covert programs, plausibly deniable third parties and used sparingly and with subtlety. The increasingly “radically transparent” world ensures that too many sophisticated eyes with all sorts of agendas will be analyzing our official spokesmen 24/7. The best will can hope to accomplish is effectively framing our public message to be truthful and compelling. Any meme that is verifiably false, if we believe we must put it out into the global media environment, cannot have a return address.

IO is a secondary area of operations for the United States. Good IO programs cannot remediate incompetent statecraft or poor military leadership or put a “happy face” on obvious disasters but poor or absent IO capabilities can fritter away the capital that successful diplomacy or military action can accrue when our enemies accusations go unanswered.

Crossposted at Zenpundit

8 thoughts on “On Synchronicity and Other Variables”

  1. Frankly, I don’t think we will ever have either effective IO or human intelligence in this day and age. Our political culture simply will not support such programs.

    We rely on openness and accountability to secure a free state but that makes it nearly impossible to carry out clandestine operations or even a hard ball marketing campaign. Americans simply won’t trust or support a program they cannot see into even if they intellectually they understand really need it. No politician is going to stick their neck out to support a program they cannot defend.

    We can’t even carry out what is essentially a marketing campaign since a wide part of the political spectrum today has no confidence whatsoever in America and sees it as fundamentally dishonest to try to advance any positive view of our efforts.

  2. Shannon,

    I think you are right that the political culture – generally critical, adversarial and negative- represents an enormous stumbling block to doing IO. In no small part because a significant number of the elite and the media have a visceral reaction against any positive political messages about America because their whole political identity is bound up as critics of “the system” and cultivating grievances regarding our shortcomings.

  3. Great read to find on a Saturday morning. I agree with Shannon:

    “We can’t even carry out what is essentially a marketing campaign since a wide part of the political spectrum today has no confidence whatsoever in America and sees it as fundamentally dishonest to try to advance any positive view of our efforts.”

    And Zen:

    “I think you are right that the political culture – generally critical, adversarial and negative- represents an enormous stumbling block to doing IO.”

    In the past we were able to carry out the kind of campaigns that Shannon writes about and Matt refers to:

    “Edward R. Murrow, the only chief of the United States Information Agency who regularly attended National Security Council Meetings, famously stated that public diplomacy must not only be in on the “crash landings” but also at the “take-offs.”

    Today, if any member of the MSM did this, they would be accused of being a pawn of the government. I am afraid our past successes has led to a period of self-loathing, that only a system threatening perturbation, coming at a time when we have a visionary leader, will erase our national pastime of “navel gazing.”

    As a nation, we were blessed to have an almost unbroken chain of leaders from Roosevelt to Reagan who were able to communicate and maintain the heroic myth that every nation has as it’s cornerstone. The past twenty years reflect how barren our field of dreams has become.

  4. Well, one thing we don’t do very well is support those abroad who have generally supportive views and can disseminate them in their own idiom. It’s a continual souce of frustration for those abroad. They’d like to help, but, we don’t make it easy for them.

  5. Oh, I was listening to NPR and had another thought. I know, I know.

    The fragment I heard driving to work was about how the narrator of the piece encountered people in remote areas, in other countries, who had very strong opinions about the US. He brought up a woman in the Philippines who said something very negative, along the lines of the US ‘raping’ her country. He didn’t bother to tell us who she was or how she came to think that, though. Sorry, I can’t remember the exact phraseology.

    So, this got me to thinking about how, when you are so powerful a country as the US, and used by other political actors in other countries (as a an outlet for anger, to deflect from personal failings, as ideological enemies) that you have to engage the negativities of those political actors.
    So, you have to find a way to communicate the weakness of the other side of the argument. Take immigration for example. We can talk about whether we have a border fence or whether we should have more temporary visas, or whatever, but, you can also (and I would do this on the sly to not seem obvious) show how the other guys mistakes are leading to the problem. Well, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not the right example. Just brain storming.

    Still. We are always reactive and never proactive, it seems.

  6. Mark, thanks for commenting the article and broadening the discussion on the topic. To the commentators, good points. I want to suggest that the model you’re considering is one not borne of a struggle but one of complacency. The last thirty years of public diplomacy and information operations have been a far cry from what was created in the 1940s and what is needed now.

    The stumbling block is, I believe, the pervasive belief that IO as well as Public Diplomacy are deceptive. Not only has “propaganda” become a bad word, but so to has “influence”, which was intentionally stricken from Karen Hughes’ definition of public diplomacy on her website. What is public diplomacy if it not to influence?

    The military has realized that the modern media environment demands truth because transparency will be imposed and we cannot afford to trust and credibility, unlike our adversary which is so often given the benefit of the doubt.

    You may be interested in this post on the principles of Smith-Mundt, which has a direct bearing on the discussion here. Also, this post may be of interest considered the topic of how IO is conducted recently.

    Good discussion.


  7. I worked in PD for 25 years, first in USIA then, from 1999 to retirement, in State. My region was primarily the Middle East.

    There are many problems in approaching the idea of Public Diplomacy, some of which are noted in the article and comments above.

    Political culture, in my view, is the greatest problem. Effective and pro-active PD programs can be done, but the successful ones tend to be long-term programs where you plant seeds now and get results 5,10, 20 years down the road. Today’s politics simply does not work at that long a horizon. For Congress, it’s a two- or six-year window; for the White House, it’s four, maybe eight. A Fulbright scholarship to an American University will hardly be expired by the time the next election comes around. How is that graduate supposed to demonstrate the utility of the program in that period of time?

    Do exchange programs have impact? I’d say so. Pik Botha, who took part in an International Visitors Program in the US designed to show him how integration can work, claimed that it was that program that convinced him that apartheid had to go. When Tony Blair became British PM, 63% of his Cabinet had been to the US on USG-sponsored programs. Did that have something to do with British support in Afghanistan and Iraq? I certainly think so.

    Bean-counting is another governmental factor that interferes with PD. Setting up an exchange program from overseas meant selecting an individual or group to take part in a thematic trip to the US. But it also meant that you had to have a few alternates standing by as, inevitably, one or two wouldn’t be able to travel at the appointed time and have only last-minute notice. When USIA went into State, the flexibility to slot alternates went away. The bookkeeping was ‘too fast and loose’ for State accountants. And let’s not even get into the six-week to six-month delays in getting visas to travel to the US!

    State’s bureaucratic culture is also a major inhibitor in the use of new media. Probably the most hierarchical agency in the USG, nothing goes out without out being cleared at many levels. That can often make information management moot.

    For example, if anyone below the level of POTUS gives a major speech on a Friday evening, a cleared transcript is not going to be available to the field until Monday at best; more likely, Tuesday. That obviates the need, clearly. It also ignores the fact that CNN and every other news agency has already put out their version of the story. Those versions are what local media are going to run with; they just won’t wait for a few days to get the full text.

    Before I retired in 2004, I tried to sell a program to State to have the (mostly junior) officers assigned to the various town in Iraq work jointly on a blog about their daily activities (I acknowledged that an editor would probably be necessary to keep the higher levels comfortable). Laughed right out of the office.

    A lot of the problems could be solved with more money. And more staff, please. At least enough to maintain a functional PD office 24/7. The world is a 24/7 place, after all. But except for the very small Operations Center, PD in the US-based bureaucracy works 8:30-5:30, M-F. Never mind that the Arab Gulf states work Sat-Th, with an 8 or 9 hour time difference.

    For PD to work successfully, it has to be taken seriously. ‘Being there at the take-off’ is very much part of that. But so too is the recognition–also in Murrow’s words–that the most important distance is the ‘last three feet’ between a representative of the US and a foreign interlocutor. PD, before it was rolled (I use the term advisedly) into State, had already taken a major staffing cut as part of the ‘peace dividend’. In India, foreigns staff was cut from around 2,500 to just over 200; American staff from around 30 to 12. In Saudi Arabia, from PD branch posts in Jeddah and Dhahran, and the local HQ in Riyadh, with total staffing of around 50 in 1992, it was reduced to only Jeddah and Riyadh, with a total staffing of 12 locals and 4 Americans when I arrived there in 2001. I was able to get Dhahran re-opened and staff increased by half a dozen, but that was and is hardly enough.

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