Getting serious about strategic influence: How to move beyond the State Department’s legacy of failure

One key OSI initiative dealt with the 26,000 Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan that were cranking out disaffected,  heavily indoctrinated young men to become Islamist fanatics and terrorists. With the support of the Pakistani government, OSI worked out a plan to use the large budget and unrivaled logistical capabilities of the U.S. military to provide alternative textbooks, fund alternative teachers, and essentially build a network of schools to replace the thousands of madrassas that Pakistani authorities would take down. President Pervez Musharraf made  a veiled reference to the plan in January 2002, when he referred to an impending “jihad” in education in Pakistan. However, the plan was never executed; Clarke and the public affairs people opposed it. In a memo to the OSI director, Clarke wrote,

I do not concur with the current plan’s tools and tactics since they would play into the hands of our adversaries by providing evidence of a controlling, biased educational system. The campaign does not show its awareness of the many voices protecting educational choice and religious instruction as separate from government influence.

There are additionally the unintended consequences of information warfare that can ‘blowback’ into our faces. Several of the campaign’s plans are, in my view outside the bounds of the military mission…. Our joint success relies on the trust, credibility and transparency of our access to media. As we seek to provide this freedom to others, we cannot afford to do so in a way that could be construed as limiting that freedom.3

Clarke and her military public affairs aides then orchestrated a phony leak to the New York Times4, falsely alleging that OSI was involved in disinformation, while forbidding OSI officials from speaking to the press.5 OSI became so tainted by the bureaucratic hit that its mission became compromised, and it was immediately disbanded.6 More than seven years later, we can see the fruits of the bureaucratic sabotage of the anti-madrassacampaign, with U.S. strategic influence eroding as Pakistan plunges into Wahhabiinspired political violence.

Significantly, the internal sabotage of the Pakistan educational reform effort was not a failure of public diplomacy vision. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers approved the OSI initiative. The point here is to illustrate how a constituent element of strategic communication—public affairs—wrecked a vital influence effort through inappropriately conventional thinking, timidity in confronting the enemy, undue turf consciousness, and bureaucratic underhandedness. The military public affairs culture can be, in many respects, quite similar to the State Department’s public diplomacy culture, although Pentagon public affairs has become light years ahead of the State Department in terms of influencing perceptions abroad.

Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, public diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats. And strategic communications is far too vital to be entrusted to diplomats and public affairs professionals—especially because the net effects of failed strategies and policies can kill the people in uniform. The State Department goes to absurd lengths to make sure it suffers  zero casualties in war zones, as the lingering controversies about private security companies like Blackwater and others attest. Yet it will barely move to create a public diplomacy/strategic communications support network for the warfighters. 

About J. Michael Waller

J. Michael Waller is Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy. His areas of concentration are propaganda, political warfare, psychological warfare, and subversion. He is the former Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school in Washington, DC. A former instructor with the Naval Postgraduate School, he is an instructor/lecturer at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.