Shadow Government

A major setback in the war of ideas

By Peter Feaver I have confidence in the new Department of Defense policy team and am inclined to give them the benefits of at least a couple doubts, but I confess I have those doubts about one recent action: Under-Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy’s decision to shut down the office of "Support for Public Diplomacy." ...

By Peter Feaver

I have confidence in the new Department of Defense policy team and am inclined to give them the benefits of at least a couple doubts, but I confess I have those doubts about one recent action: Under-Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy’s decision to shut down the office of "Support for Public Diplomacy."

Of course, if one relies only on the headline, there is no mystery: "Pentagon Closes Office Accused of Issuing Propaganda Under Bush." Described that way, one expects to see a bunch of ink-stained wretches churning out cheap hagiography for the Dear Leader — rather what any recent issue of the various news weeklies have become, alas. But, as I have shown before, headlines are an unreliable guide, and that proves to be the case again with this office and this report.

Ignore the headline, and pay closer attention to what Thomas Shanker reported. The office that Flournoy has just shuttered was the lead policy office for coordinating policy for the Pentagon’s part of the "war of ideas" — the vital "hearts and minds" component of the war on terror (or, if you prefer, strike that and substitute "overseas contingency operations directed at man-made disasters").

Now, I happen to think that the war of ideas is one policy area where the Bush administration struggled for too long. Only at the very end, when James Glassman took over lead responsibilities as Under-secretary for Public Diplomacy at State, and when he had a willing and able partner in the Pentagon through the office of "Support for Public Diplomacy," was the Bush administration making adequate headway. Reading between the lines of Shanker’s reporting, it appears Flournoy may have bought into the myth spread by internal critics that the office, as Shanker put it, "overstepped its mandate during the final years of the Bush administration by trying to organize information operations that violated Pentagon guidelines for accuracy and transparency." Those are extreme charges and Shanker does not substantiate them in anyway.

Unsubstantiated, they have the smell of the bitter internecine warfare between public affairs and policy that has bedeviled information operations from the beginning. People with a public affairs background often view information operations as a turf-stealing nuisance. They fight hard to preserve turf and in so doing overstep their own bounds — check out this rather critical Pentagon Inspector General report. Indeed, public affairs folks can be more effective at thwarting U.S. information operations efforts than they are in thwarting the enemy’s information operations efforts.

I hope that Flournoy was adequately briefed before she made this decision. If so, she will have good answers to the questions she is now getting from Congress. In an April 22, 2009 letter to Flournoy that I saw, Senator Sam Brownback laid out some sensible questions:

*What role will OSD Policy play in DoD and overall US strategic communications?

*Who is responsible for overseeing, managing and coordinating the Department’s strategic communication efforts?

*Do you agree that strategic communications should be kept separate from public affairs? [This was the basic finding of the IG report.]

*What specific steps are you taking to coordinate strategic communications with the rest of the U.S. Government, including the Department of State, USAID and the Intelligence Community?

*Does the Department of Defense intend to contribute to US Government efforts to counter ideological support for terrorism and otherwise influence or persuade key foreign audiences? If so, how?

I would only add two more of my own: What is the broader strategy that is guiding the overall Obama administration’s approach to the war of ideas (or whatever they wish to call it) and to the Pentagon’s role in it? Where is the strategic element in what they are trying to do?

If Flournoy has good answers to those questions, she has re-won the benefit of any remaining doubts I have on this particular policy area. If not, she may wish she could reopen the Office for the Support for Public Diplomacy, because it would have provided some compelling answers.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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