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

So if the military has done all the strategic thinking on strategic communication; built nearly all of the new wartime information processes and infrastructures; developed entirely new cadre and systems for information operations and related fields; asked for and received massive funding increases in support of strategic communication; moved astonishingly ahead with countless constellations of websites, blogs, social networks and other global electronic multimedia; and continues to invest in the information and influence training of its personnel by the many thousands, why are we selling it short?

Sure, the military has moved extremely fast for a large bureaucracy, and as with all forms of war- fighting, is proceeding on the strategic communications front through trial and error. It has made its share of mistakes. It has gotten ahead of itself in terms of strategy. It has yet to develop a strategic communications doctrine—in large part due to a continued deference to the State Department as the lead agency. But it is moving ahead faster than anyone else, and at far greater sacrifice to its own people. Yet the mantra continues: State should take the lead. And many in Congress want to take the military out of the strategic influence infosphere almost completely.

Political warfare: The American way 

When public relations statements and gentle, public diplomacy-style persuasion—the policies of attraction that constitute “soft power”—fail to win the needed sentiments and actions, what other tools does the United States have in its arsenal? There was a time when the CIA had the necessary resources, authority and personnel to help covertly shape political outcomes abroad. These ongoing operations had the necessary support from the top in Washington, and often were backed by careful diplomatic strategy. John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger come to mind as secretaries of state who adeptly waged political warfare as an instrument on the world stage.

Why shouldn’t a secretary of state be a political warrior? In domestic politics, Americans of all stripes wage political warfare quite effectively—and ruthlessly. As Jonathan Pitney points out in his book The Art of Political Warfare7, American domestic political discourse is laced with militaristic jargon. Even the word “campaign” comes from the military. Politicians wage psychological guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run attacks, character assassination, even “going nuclear” or using the “nuclear option” in order to defeat the other guys and keep themselves in office. They gather dirt on their political opponents and potential opponents, sometimes using what the KGB called kompromat to compromise them into voting a certain way against their will, to withdrawing from a political race, or even into quitting politics altogether. They smear and slam and destroy. They leak privileged information, even national secrets, to the media in order to win internal policy battles. They pursue politics of personal destruction, even trying to criminalize the policies and actions of their rivals or predecessors, suing or prosecuting them to ruin their livelihoods and destroy them as viable actors, to discredit them and their ideas permanently and to get others out of the way. Both parties do it. Like it or not, we have a bipartisan consensus that political warfare is part and parcel of American democracy.

Yet, for some reason, our democracy-promotion efforts abroad must be squeaky clean. Almost nothing is covert. Our allies fall by the wayside without the needed support from Washington, as those who would do us ill grow in strength. Instead of marginalizing the worst of them, like Osama bin Laden, three successive presidents from both parties have unintentionally built him up. They singled him out by name, declared him the enemy, and vowed, depending on the temperament of the particular president, to bring him to justice or kill him. The U.S. leadership inadvertently helped give bin Laden and his alQaeda movement a winning brand: what better praise to heap upon a terrorist in a cave than have the presidents of the United States identify him by name as the enemy! That kind of acknowledgment is what any aspiring politician would seek—immediate credibility from the president of the world’s only superpower, and instant recognition that he was a force to contend with. American public diplomacy arguably became al-Qaeda’s greatest recruitment vehicle, if for no other reason than it focused the diplomatic power and prestige of the United States presidency on an aspiring terrorist franchise and turned it into a prestigious name brand for people who wish us ill. 

About J. Michael Waller

Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy. J. Michael Waller's 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.