The Heritage Foundation on the Objectives for US Strategic Communication

September 5, 2011

Last week Helle Dale at the Heritage Foundation posted a piece about the progress of the US Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication within the State Department.

Within the post Dale offers a list of six priorities that should be used by Congress to measure the Administration’s progress on strategic communication and public diplomacy.   In looking at this list I was struck by the way that it mixed up different types of objectives.  In talking about PD a greater degree of precision would be helpful.

Here’s the list followed by my comments in italics.

  • Responding rapidly to misinformation.  The Digital Outreach Team needs to counter anti-American conspiracy theories in Pakistan and elsewhere.  The U.S. government badly needs the rapid response capability to counter enemy propaganda and other misinformation.  The cumbersome clearance process within the State Department is antithetical to the concept of rapid response, which means that this capability may better be housed in another agency—NCTC, for instance.
  • Previous research has pointed to the length of time that the DOT can take to respond to posting so streamlining the process seems like a good idea.  Also speed of response provides an objective metric.  But how important is the DOT in  countering misinformation in Pakistan given relatively low internet penetration?
  • Combating radical Islamism.  The U.S. needs to craft an official anti-Islamist narrative that can help discredit the ideology of jihad against non-Muslims.  In order to do this, analysts need a better understanding of the narratives that motivate young Muslims to become radicalized.  Both the Pentagon’s Office of Information Support (formerly psychological operations) and the CSCC are doing work in this area.
  • This doesn’t have a specific objective attached.  This is an area where great importance is attached to the idea of the narrative.  I’m not convinced that there is a single narrative and that this is worthy of being made a key objective? 
  • Aiding Iran’s Green Movement.  U.S. agencies should spotlight Tehran’s past assassination campaigns against opposition leaders in exile, as well as its continued financial support of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah while the Iranian people are increasingly impoverished. These are classic public diplomacy targets.
  • This is turning a specific message into an objective – it seems a bit strange.   Who are the targets for this message?  Is this a specific counterterrorism message rather than a general PD message.
  • Formulating a multi-tiered Internet freedom strategy. The U.S. should go beyond funding for Internet circumvention technology and should mount a strong push for international cooperation through a coalition of nations willing to stand up for freedom of expression
  • Clearly this isn’t a job for the CSCC rather it’s an overall foreign policy objective.
  • Securing broadcast cooperation. The U.S. should work with the Broadcasting Board of Governors to make international broadcasting part of an integrated government-wide U.S. counterterrorism communications strategy. The firewall established by the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 between State and BBG to ensure editorial independence for the broadcasters has turned into a detriment in terms of resource allocation and lack of congressional oversight.
  •  The argument over US international broadcasting and its link to PD is  a very old one.  Dale is taking one side and Kim Andrew Elliott is taking the other side that international broadcasting is an autonomous function.  My comment is that if you were going to come down on the ‘broadcasting is PD’ side of the argument it would make more sense to subordinate it to an overall vision of PD not to a single element, counterterrorism, of the overall programme. 

It makes sense to set clear objectives for PD work but that objective setting process has to take into account where responsibility for different activities sit.  Part of doing this is being clear about the place of PD within foreign policy and the place of counterterrorism within foreign policy and public diplomacy.  There’s more to PD than counterterrorism and forgetting that is not helpful to America’s reputation.




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