The Department of State is “revitalizing” public diplomacy. What the United States really needs is a Ministry of Propaganda (Latin for information).
For decades, the U.S. has needed ─ for more than just public diplomacy ─ a permanent organization for using all the means of information in international politics. After all, even third-rate countries routinely employ an information apparatus ─ often against the U.S. The U.S. can not win the war of ideas by speaking softly or keeping its mouth shut. In fact, the U.S. has been doing just that.
The U.S. has not organized effectively ─ much less institutionalized permanently ─ information as a primary, independent instrument of policy. The information instrument is more than public diplomacy alone. Properly understood, the information instrument integrates public diplomacy, psychological operations, influence operations, disinformation, and information warfare ─ from open and overt to clandestine and covert, from public explanation of policy to secret subversion of enemies. All these means are needed in the war of ideas. Now, these means — such as they are — are parceled out among independent departments. Properly organized, single control and direction can orchestrate ─ not just coordinate ─ all these means into a coherent and cohesive instrument with mutually supporting effects. Properly applied ─ and combined with the other instruments of statecraft ─ diplomacy, intelligence, economic measures, political warfare, military force, and humanitarian assistance ─ information can be an offensive, pro-active, even decisive, strategic weapon.
The U.S. is denying itself a powerful instrument of influence abroad, particularly suited to globalization and the Information Age. The U.S. failure to use this indispensable instrument to protect even its own national interests is inexcusable, especially as it wages a protracted war to the death against Islamic terrorists to preserve democratic governance, a free society, and Western Civilization. This mind-boggling, self-imposed disarmament continues by the country that invented all those modern means of influence: Broadway, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, TV infotainment, political campaigns, lobbying, and the Internet. Can the U.S. apply these inventive technologies and imaginative talents only to inanities?
This sorry state of statecraft is an unfortunate illustration of the extensive ignorance of the information instrument of influence in the Executive and Legislative Branches, the frequent misrepresentation of its uses and purposes by press and pundits, and the application to it of irrelevant domestic political correctness. The State Department’s United States Information Agency, the only global, open information organization in the U.S. Government, was disestablished by a Senator with the acquiescence of the Department, the President, and the rest of Congress; it has not been replaced. Major television channels’ news anchors, news magazines, and newspapers repeatedly have characterized Radio-TV Marti as mouthpieces for the views of Cuban exiles in Florida. The staff of Al Hurra, the U.S. Government television station broadcasting to the Arabs, has featured segments supporting the views of the American homosexual and radical feminist movements, hardly the main issues in the Middle East.
The almost mythical CIA Cold War capabilities, for example its “Mighty Wurlitzer” whose more than 7,000 employees that played a symphony of more than fifty newspapers; many news services, magazines, and radio stations; book publishers; labor unions; economic pressure; and political warfare that prevented Western European countries from falling to the Communists and the later, expansive program that supported Polish Solidarity in dismantling the Soviet Evil Empire, are long gone. Not many people today remember and would risk playing such compleat influence compositions. However, there are plenty of people in and out of government who are prepared to attack any effort to establish even an anaemic imitation: witness the backstabbing in the Defense Department that aborted General Worden’s Office of Strategic Influence on the false accusation of domestic disinformation and the Congressional and media mischaracterization of Admiral Poindexter’s data mining organization in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as domestic spying.
Many in the news media and some in government are much concerned with the “blowback” of disinformation into news stories, intelligence, and policy. The concern is exaggerated. There was, during the Cold War, a procedure for preventing “blowback” into intelligence, and, therefore, policy. As regards the news media, the risk of “blowback” is slight because the resort to disinformation abroad is rare – in the most difficult circumstances and against only the most monstrous enemies – usually by the most secret, limited means of which each use must be approved by the Executive and the Congress. In any case, the media, in a sense, already dispense disinformation by coloring their reporting with their own ideological views, editorializing under the rubric of reporting, and selectively refusing to report some news. All in all, the sequel to any “blowback” should be slight, seldom, and short-lived.
Currently, the U.S.’s use of information abroad is limited to the disjointed efforts of the White House staff’s public relations spin; State Department’s passive, reactive, and defensive public diplomacy; Defense Department’s tactical, battlefield psychological operations; and CIA’s abysmally limited covert influence operations. The White House spokesman repeats positive, optimistic generalities about U.S. actions and hopes in Iraq but never has provided a detailed exposition of U.S. strategy. State Department only belatedly and very few times has provided Arabic-speaking interviewees to refute abominable accusatory stories on Al Jazeera television. The Army’s 4th PSYOP Group was limited to leaflet and radio broadcasts against the Iraqi forces. The Central Intelligence Agency never did establish a clandestine radio station against the Iranian mullahs. Each of the few, disparate, and piecemeal information efforts is undertaken episodically, coordinated haphazardly, and funded miserly. The only continuity in the efforts is that they are disdained within the government because of consternation at controversy. Consequently, capabilities are scarce and success is scarcer. These weak, unconnected efforts eke out their existence against resistance from apathetic agencies, clueless Congressmen, and misinformed media as transient tools accepted only in extremis.
There is a crying need for an integrated strategic information capability having long-range continuity in an adequate organization under a constant, direct, single leadership. In fact, no such capability and organization exist, and no one has been in charge of the national information efforts for more than a decade. The present arrangement of a Deputy National Security Advisor, cajoling departments and agencies to coordinate their foreign information activities, is ludicrously insufficient. A similar solution was cobbled together during the Reagan Administration despite State’s resistance, Defense’s enthusiasm but the Services’ opposition, and CIA’s refusal to participate. A permanent leadership in the form of a new Cabinet department ─ ambitious but necessary and long overdue ─ that can knock together heads to force integrated influence operations is operationally essential. Central direction to ensure consistent, mutually reinforcing images and messages to shape foreign perceptions of the U.S. and U.S. policies, objectives, and actions is imperative. Obviously, it must be founded on an understanding of foreign cultures, psychologies, and languages, although for the most part it requires no more than strong supervision, common sense, communication skills, initiative, and will power. Needed too are constancy in personnel, programs, and realistic budgets so that America’s efforts are not episodic.
Some influence operations are cheap, for example distribution of opinion pieces to newspapers; some are expensive, such as setting up a satellite television station, some are technically, operationally, or intellectually sophisticated, for example spreading black disinformation in government networks; many are easy, simple, and obvious, such as immediate, vigorous, undiplomatic rebuttals by U.S. ambassadors to false accusations; but all require commitment by the national leadership. The U.S. needs the brains and the backbone to fight the enemy that threatens our existence; the U.S. also needs to use all available weapons.
Walter Jajko, a retired Air Force brigadier general and former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Intelligence Oversight), is Professor of Defense Studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. His views are not those of the Department of Defense.