Military superiority, diplomatic deftness and economic clout are measurable and globally respected instruments of U.S. national power. Information, on the other hand, while a potent strategic resource and foundation for national power, has not earned equal recognition. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the failure to win the battle for hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim populations. The world’s superpower is, in the view of most commentators, losing the propaganda war.
Unfortunately, information will not be recognized on its own merits as an element of national power until the United States discovers how to exploit the strengths and defend against the weakness of information operations, and demonstrates that it can wield information as effectively in the streets as it has on the battlefield.
Modern wars—to the extent the term war still applies—are no longer fought solely by conventional armies on structured battlefields. The will of publics and the minds of their leaders are now believed to be the centers of gravity, and interference or destruction of an opponent’s infrastructure is the measure of mission success. This is a task no longer assigned exclusively to the military or conduced under laws of armed conflict.
President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 national security strategy contained four components: diplomatic, economic, military and informational. Despite his and other presidential directives with titles like 1983’s “Management of Public Diplomacy” and 1999’s “International Public Information (IPI),” IPI remains an unproven resource.
The challenge to IPI is posed succinctly in this question attributed to former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke: “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” The short answer is that al Qaida had requisite technology, an agenda, a credible messenger in Osama bin Laden and a message that resonated with a xenophobic audience.
The United States had the same technology and access to Al-Jazeera television as did bin Laden. But the nation had no organization or coherent plan to draft and disseminate its message to a schizophrenic audience that loves U.S. music, food and television, but hates U.S. policies, mistrusts its messengers and discounts their messages.
As one U.S. government official, who belatedly set up around-the-clock public information response cells in Washington, London and Pakistan, explained, “To a certain extent, we dropped the ball … we acknowledge that we should have been here earlier … we have lost a step in this campaign.”
The United States has a reputation that dates from World War I for late starts and for fumbling the information ball. But that is not the only or even the primary cause of the failure of IPI.
A more detailed but still incomplete explanation is contained in an October 2001 report by the U.S. Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Managed Information Dissemination. That study—jointly sponsored with the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs—found the U.S. government information dissemination process to be “understaffed and underfunded … suffering from poor coordination [and] not integrated into the national security planning and implementation process.” Events with IPI in Afghanistan indicate problems that run much deeper than just organization.
The DSB report concluded, “In the information age, influence and power go to those who can disseminate credible information in ways that will mobilize publics to support interests, goals and objectives. What is required,” the report continued, “is a coherent approach as to how we think about managed information dissemination.”
Information management has not always been so difficult. Nation-states managed information—one can call that propaganda, psychological operations (PSYOPS), perception management or, the latest nuance, strategic influence—exclusively through their armed forces. Information, and disinformation as well, remains a key element within the warfighting context. It leverages military prowess by creating confusion, dissidence and disaffection, and by reducing morale and combat efficiency of enemy troops. Information is a proven force multiplier increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of fewer combat forces, reducing collateral damage and limiting exposure of friendly forces and innocents to harm.
However, as David Hoffman opined in the March-April 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, while winning the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim populations is high on the agenda of the U.S. administration, “military operations abroad … do nothing to address the virulent anti-Americanism of government-sponsored media, mullahs and madrassas [schools].” In fact, they confound IPI programs.
The United States traditionally has been tardy in marshalling information resources to national purposes and then has permitted hastily assembled ad-hoc groups to fritter away after the crisis, when the organizations should have been formalized and retained. The DSB report chronicles a recurring scramble to manage dissemination of information dating from the establishment of the Creel Committee in 1917, the designation of a coordinator of information in July 1941, and the formation of a subcommittee of the State Department-Army-Navy-Air Coordinating Committee charged in 1946 with “developing a plan for wartime psychological warfare.”
The Korean War spawned several national-level information coordinating committees for psychological operations along with an Operations Coordinating Board that, uncharacteristically, endured until 1961.
The Vietnam conflict produced no less than four national-level psychological operations committees. The National Security Council staff chaired an ad hoc interagency information coordinating committee during the Gulf War, but a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish a permanent information coordinating committee was not acted on. A similar fate awaited the Foreign Information Subgroup created to plan and coordinate U.S. information activities in Haiti in 1994.
The Pentagon formed its own Public Diplomacy Directorate to run strategic information campaigns during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, but this was abolished by a Clinton directive.
More recently, the Defense Department formed an Office of Strategic Influence to run information operations abroad for operation Enduring Freedom. However, according to journalist J. Michael Waller, it immediately ran afoul of a disinformation campaign conspired by “turf-jealous senior officials,” and it was abolished.
According to the DSB report, “The history of the past 60 years [is] one of episodic commitment to systematic information dissemination planning and coordination … without dedicating the resources to coordinate sophisticated communications strategies … [and] the information planning process that informs national security decision making [and] is inadequate both for crises and for shaping the long-term information environment.”
Marshall McLuhan titled his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage [sic], but were that philosopher to observe the impact of information on the global village, he might revisit several of his conclusions. First, content matters. When the whole world has ready access to the media, it is the message, not the medium that—to reprise McLuhan’s clever turn of the word massages—makes the difference. Second, as IPI efforts in the Middle East reveal, the credibility of the messenger is as important as the content of the message.
Finally, while foreseeing coming information warfare, McLuhan wrote that “electric informational media wars” were distinct and separable from “hot wars conducted in the backyards of the world with old technologies.” But, they are not separable, as events in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan made clear. PSYOPS are conducted simultaneously, both on and off the battlefield, with predictable conflicts and differences over objectives and methods being voiced by management at the tactical, operational and national levels.
Bureaucratic intransigence, turf wars and disputes over message content are not the only, nor are they necessarily the main, reasons for IPI difficulties.
First, what are the metrics—the measures of effectiveness—for determining the value of IPI? How are they measured? How do we know if the desired target has been engaged, or that its behavior has been influenced?
Second, is it possible to evaluate reaction to IPI operations from an audience—or a marketing focus group—that also is being pummeled by kinetic weapons?
We can measure effectiveness of information as it supports the instruments of national power. The term “network-centric warfare” says all that needs to be said about criticality of information on the battlefield. And, while diplomats once conferred in closed rooms, they now meet in a global fish bowl, and the street reacts to what it sees, hears and reads in its own media. Finally, the global economic engine would sputter to a halt in seconds without the fuel of instant, constant and secure information. Those are meaningful measures of effectiveness. Standing isolated and alone, IPI has none.
Both the State and Defense departments have summoned advertising executives and strategy consultants to bolster IPI programs. But, as David Hoffman writes, “Slick marketing techniques and legions of U.S. spokespersons on satellite television will not stem the tide of xenophobia sweeping through the Islamic world … [and] widespread antagonism to U.S. regional policies themselves further limits what public diplomacy can achieve. The street,” he observes, “is a potent force and can undermine even the best-crafted peace agreement.”
How then can the U.S. message reach and influence the street? The United States certainly has the technology and organizational resources to correct all the problems reported in the DSB study. But, these will not correct the deficiencies in formulating and delivering messages.
It is a mistake to apply the military information model to IPI. Opponents on the battlefield easily can be identified, engagement verified and at least first-order effects observed and evaluated. None of this is possible in IPI.
So Hoffman is correct in his recommendation that U.S. policy should make the “promotion of independent media a major priority in those countries where oppression breeds terrorism and apply strong diplomatic pressure to influence government to adopt laws and policies that promote greater media freedom.”
If the media in suppressed nations can be unshackled, perhaps then the values and principles of open and free societies can speak for themselves.
Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a contributing editor to SIGNAL, an adjunct faculty member of the National Defense University School of Information Warfare and Strategy and a contributing editor to four books on information and cyberwar.