The Everyday IRD: British Covert Information in the Early 1960s

The Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s Cold War covert information agency, has been back in news this week as the latest release of material from the Public Records Office confirms the involvement of the IRD in the production and use of forgeries aimed at Soviet aligned fronts organizations.  This report provides some detail on an operation against the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1963.

By coincidence I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces on the IRD in this era which really focus on the day to day to activities of the organization.  These are a top secret review of the IRD conducted by the former Permanent Under Secretary of the FO Lord Strang in 1963  that was been dug out of the archives and transcribed by  The second is a PhD Thesis by Simon Collins on the IRD in the Middle East and Africa between 1956 and 1963.  Strang’s report is redacted and is very much a Whitehall focused document while Collin’s thesis actually gives a pretty strong sense of what IRD was doing.

The Strang report seems to have been motivated by concerns over whether an expansion of IRD was providing value for money. The agency had been authorized to appoint up to 24 field officers who  could be sent overseas.  Part of the background here is that the IRD was largely funded by the ‘secret vote’ that financed the intelligence services and wasn’t subject to the same level of financial stringency that affected the overt overseas information services of the FO, the British Council and the BBC.  Neither was it subject to the same staffing policies as the FO.*  There’s a similarity with situation in the US during the early Cold War where the Marshall Plan information activities and those of the CIA had more money and more freedom than those of the State Department.  Although Strang accepts the argument that the IRD should be maintained as a covert organization I also get a sense in that part of the importance of the IRD  in this era is because of the additional resource it brings to the overall information effort.

At this point the IRD is the largest department in the FO and is several times the size of the overt information departments.   Strang gives a figure of 288 whereas the total staff of the Information Policy Department, Information Executive Department and the Cultural Relations Department is 83.  The key to the difference is that IRD is producing its own content and has its own people in the field.  I would assume that information officers at overseas posts did not count as part of the IPD establishment somewhat reducing the discrepancy.

I think Collins gives a good sense of what is happening with the IRD at this point.  From 1955 the IRD is  tasked against Nasserite Arab Nationalism as well as Communism.  This continues to be a priority well after the Suez Crisis.  Egypt’s external communications are attacking the British position in Africa not just  conservative Arab regimes.  In the late 1950s Britain wants to rebuild diplomatic relations with Egypt while containing the Nasserite influence.  The result is Transmission X; a sort of asymmetrical rebuttal service to Egypt’s radio broadcasting.  Instead of a classic mid-20th century radio war with competing radio stations directly attacking each other – which might have undermined the goal of repairing diplomatic relations – Transmission X used near real-time reports on Cairo’s broadcasts from BBC Monitoring Service as a basis to produce materials: opinion pieces, scripts that could be rapidly circulated to posts and to their contacts in government and media in the Middle East and North Africa.  The initial concept was to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian broadcasts by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies. Collins sees some success with this activity.  But from an organizational point of view  the consequences are bigger.  IRD is no longer just producing background materials but is now also operating as a full time information service.  The content and scope of Transmission X expanded beyond the narrow agenda of countering Egyptian broadcasts to take in anti-Communist material and even non-political ‘projection of Britain’ fare.   Certainly one gets the impression from the two studies here that one of the consequences of the expanding IRD field presence was for it to be used to fill gaps in the official information services.

The idea that 1955-65 represents a ‘golden age’ for Western public diplomacies crops up  in discussions of the  France and the US as well as the UK.  In this era public diplomacies are expanding as colonial countries gain their independence, public diplomacies are also pressed into service to fill gaps in national media systems and commercial international news services.  From the mid-60s the costs of this start to become apparent, the Soviet and Chinese threats in Africa seem less immediate and gaps in media systems are being filled in so that the scope of these information activities can be scaled back.

The main point is that while the involvement of the IRD in black activities will always be of interest the bulk of what they were doing was much more mundane.  In making sense of British Cold War information activities the covert and the overt need to put into context.

*I’m wondering if the exemption from the normal staff regulations meant that there were more women in IRD. The field staff were carefully selected and included at least three women, at least two of whom had intelligence connections going back the Second World War.


Collins, Simon MW (2013). “Countering Communist and Nasserite Propaganda: The Foreign Office Information Research Department in the Middle East and Africa, 1954-1963.” PhD, University of Hertfordshire.

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399.

Egypt’s Strategy of Teacher Secondment as International Influence under Nasser

I recently came across a couple of very interesting papers by Gerasimos Tsourapas (2016, 2018) of the University of Birmingham on Egypt’s use of seconded officials, particularly teachers, as an instrument of statecraft during the regime of  Colonel Nasser.

Before discussing the case there is a broader point about the nature of historical research on public diplomacies. The problem is that our understanding of the historical record is inevitably shaped by ‘big battalions’ of organizations like the Comintern, the USIA, the British Council, the Goethe Institute – relatively enduring specialist organizations with extensive programmes of activities which leave sizeable archival records.  At the same time it is clear that these organizations don’t capture the full extent of public diplomacies, there are many other activities that have been much less enduring, more narrowly focused and on a smaller scale and don’t leave well defined archival trails.  These activities are only likely to become visible as the offshoot of other research, take for instance Kristine Kjærsgaard’s (2015) contribution on the Danish diplomat Bodil Begtrup who launched a whole series of one woman projects across different countries in the course of her career.    Tsourapas’ research has been driven by an interest in migration questions.  His research shows doing the state of the archives doesn’t make things easy, despite using different archives in Egypt he’s had to use the British archives and contemporary media reports to reconstruct the programme.   From the point of view of understanding public diplomacies as a whole  absence of knowledge is not the same as absence of activities or absence of effect only absence of research.

Eight summary points

  1. During the period under study Egypt dispatched thousands of teachers across the Middle East.  These teachers were vectors of the Egyptian version of Arab Nationalism, and they tended to indoctrinate their students into the greatness of Egypt and the importance of Colonel Nasser as the leader of the Arab World, including organizing protests and boycotts.
  2. The root cause of this was the effort under Mohammed Ali (ruled 1805-49) to reform the Egyptian state, which included the creation of formal systems of education and teacher training, publication of school books etc.  As the rest of the Arab world achieved independence after the Second World War the relative development of the Egyptian education system created an opportunity by which other states welcomed the supply of trained, Arabic speaking teachers.
  3. In this context, Egypt made a strategic choice to promote this system of secondment.  Some of the teachers were paid for by the Egyptian government while others were selected by Cairo and paid for the host government.  This process of secondment continued despite the fact that there were teacher shortages in Egypt.  This was part of the ‘Cold War’ (Kerr 1967) between the Arab Nationalists and the conservative Arab States.
  4. Money Talks: This strategy was greeted with alarm by the British, not just because of the anti-imperial views propagated by the teachers, but because they supplanted British teachers who were much more expensive to employ.   The cost issue cushioned the whole programme against the opposition of host governments who tended to be unenthusiastic about the political views of the teachers.  Although there were numerous expulsions the fact of Egyptian subsidies to meant that the expelled teachers tended to be replaced by new  Egyptians.
  5. The fact that the teachers were Egyptian and the books that they used were also Egyptian tended to raise the prestige of the country.  In addition they emphasized the role of Nasser in resisting the imperialists and the Israelis further underlining the country’s importance.  Cultural promotion and political campaigning were two sides of the same coin.
  6. Context Matters:  The reception of the secondment policy varied depending on the supply of qualified personnel.   Tsourapas notes that the break-up of the United Arab Republic was partly driven by the feeling among Syrian officials that the Egyptians were taking their jobs.
  7. Although the role of Egyptian radio broadcasting in Nasser’s foreign policy is relatively well known this other strand of foreign public engagement hasn’t attracted attention arguably would have had longer lasting effects.
  8. At a theoretical level it’s more evidence for my usual argument that separating ‘attraction’ from material resources and from contexts as many formulations of ‘soft power’ really doesn’t fit with the historical record.


Kerr M (1967) The Arab Cold War, 1958-67: A Study of Ideology in Politics. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press.

Kjærsgaard K (2015) A Public Diplomacy Entrepreneur: Danish Ambassador Bodil Begtrup in Iceland, Switzerland and Portugal, 1949–1973, in Jordan P, Glover N and Clerc L (eds) Histories of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Leiden: Brill, pp. 102–122.

Tsourapas G (2016) Nasser’s Educators and Agitators across al-Watan al-‘Arabi: Tracing the Foreign Policy Importance of Egyptian Regional Migration, 1952-1967, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 43: 324–41. Ungated version.

Tsourapas G (2018) Authoritarian emigration states: Soft power and cross-border mobility in the Middle East, International Political Science Review, 39: 400–416. Ungated version




Plans! We Don’t Need No Stinking Plans!

One of the points I was making at the ISA Convention a couple of weeks ago was that in the real world public diplomacy organizations find it difficult to be strategic in the sense of creating a strong connection between their objectives and their means.  In part this is because public diplomacy organizations are always on, the routine logistical requirements of running a programme both on a day to day basis and in the longer term overwhelm the capacity of organizations to be strategic.   There’s no point worrying about SMART goals if you are more worried about keeping the show on the road at all.

Anyway another exhibit to buttress my cases emerged yesterday a US State Department Inspector General’s report on how the public diplomacy work of the embassy in Baghdad was contributing to the counter messaging part of the overall strategy against ISIL

The first item from the summary:

“Embassy Baghdad’s public diplomacy activities operate without formal strategic planning and goals.”

Public diplomacy is not discussed within the embassy’s Integrated Country Strategy  and there is no Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan.

The report obviously thinks that there should be plans but that’s not my point: lots of public diplomacy is reactive, and improvised rather than strategic.  From an analytical perspective it’s often better to look public diplomacies it through an organizational lens rather than an intentional one.

Morocco’s New Public Diplomacy Network: West African Sufi Brotherhoods

In theory public diplomacy is about building relationships. In practice countries rarely start from scratch they build from a base provided by relationships that already exist.

There’s an interesting example of this in a new report from FRIDE on Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Morocco has tended to ignore Africa but because of the economic situation in Europe and the regional security situation it has launched a diplomatic offensive to build relations with African countries. One of the relationships it is activating is that with the Tijaniyyah Brotherhood a Sufi network with millions of members spread across west Africa. Because the Islam in the region was originally spread by the Moroccan Almoravid dynasty the king of Morocco is regarded as a religious leader and Fez as destination for pilgrimage this network is being activated as an asset for Morocco. This means pledges to build mosques, offers of training for imams and cheap flights for those coming to Morocco on pilgrimage. The promotion of Moroccan sufi Islam is extremely welcome in Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger and Benin presumably as a balance to the activities of more hardline varieties of Islam.

Of course this being International Relations there’s a competitive element here – Morocco traditionally regards Algeria as a rival and the sufi card is one that Algeria, as a formally secular state lacks.

It’s also worth noting that as with many things public diplomacy initiatives that new tend to be repetition of things that were done in the past Kane (1997) points to previous efforts, from the 1960s to the 1980s, by the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Saudis as well as the Moroccan to engage the Sufi brotherhoods as part of their public diplomacies.
Kane O (1997) Muslim Missionaries and African States, in Rudolph SH and Piscatori J (eds) Transnational Religion and Fading States, Boulder  Colo.: Westview, pp. 47–62.
Tadlaoui G (2015) Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Madrid: FRIDE.

Counter-Propaganda: The Case of ISIS

I’ve spent far too much time over the last few weeks thinking about counter-propaganda without really getting to a satisfactory conclusion so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and move on.   I’ll post on ISIS, then Russia, then draw a few general conclusions/recommendations.

  1. ISIS exists in two spaces. Firstly, on the ground in Iraq and Syria  and secondly, in the transnational space of the ‘global jihad’. These two spaces are connected but they are not identical.  Recent studies on ISIS have placed more weight on the first of these while a lot of Western political discourse either doesn’t discriminate or places more weight on the latter – in particular on the Western citizens becoming radicalized, travelling to the Islamic State and then returning to carry out terrorist actions in the West.   The argument is that it is the excellence of the IS information offensive that is allowing it to recruit foreign fighters and hence become successful on the ground. I think that this is precisely the wrong way round. The global rise of ISIS is not because of its excellent propaganda: it has excellent propaganda because of its military success.    The capture of Mosul and the defeat of the Iraqi Army gave it the basis for the proclamation of the Caliphate and at that point is launched an international strategic communications campaign to market itself. It’s a basic rule of wartime communications (see for instance the memoirs of British propagandists during the Second World War) that it’s much easier to make yourself look good when you are winning. Of course when you inflict a major defeat on the opponent the international news media will multiply the message while you will have plenty of images of captured equipment and personnel for your own productions.   This is not to say that activities aimed at potentially radicalized groups outside the region are completely useless but they are working at a major disadvantage.
  2. The most powerful counter-propaganda strategy in dealing with the IS will be to dislodge it from the territory that it holds. Where the two spaces come together is in the state-like nature of the IS this allows it to transmit the call to Muslims to come and live in the IS. It’s interesting that the message doesn’t seem to be come and fight but come and live. The more that the IS territory resembles a war zone and the more that its messages are focused simply on fighting (in the context of losing battles and news coverage that is about their defeats) the less potent their narrative will be.
  3. Western political leaders are in danger of forgetting that ISIS is not the only Salafi-Jihadi group out there.  ISIS is successful in the jihadist space because there is a demand for what it is providing. The preferred aim must be for the Salafi-Jihadi social movement to run its course, the defeat of ISIS won’t necessarily do this although the baroque cruelty will probably help to discredit the whole movement. The defeat of ISIS in Syria-Iraq may just create more market space for other Salafi-Jihadi movements ie Al-Qaida/Nusra Front which aren’t that much of an improvement.
  4. What’s the plan B?  The difficulty is that the weakness of the Iraqi army, the lack of any solution in Syria, the history of sectarian politics in Iraq, the ambiguous attitude of Turkey makes it difficult to see when a narrative of military reverses is going to become established.  This leads to the question of the extent to which IS can stabilize itself?  Many observers assume that over time it will alienate local tribes and become progressively more fragile.   One reason to attract foreigners to the caliphate is that that immigration produces groups that are not embedded in the local context and presumably more supportive of the overall project. But if ISIS is going to be there for sometime how to deal with it.  Here a strategy of economic warfare might be the solution.

Polling the Middle East: UAE, China, Russia Up

TESEV a Turkish think tank have been doing polls  on The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East for the past 5 years and I’ve just come across their latest version.  The fieldwork was conducted in August and December last year and covers 14 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.  Although there are lots of questions about Turkey the poll covers other regional issues

Lots if interesting stuff here including data on media use but a few highlights.

Generally respondents see economic issues as the most important facing their country.

The most positively rated countries across the region are the UAE (67% positive) and China (64%) followed by Saudi Arabia (60%) and Turkey (67%).  Israel is the least popular (7% positive) followed by the US (30%) and the UK (36%)

Despite perceptions of increasing sectarianism across the region Hezbollah rates a 44% positive rating only one point behind the GCC and two points behind the OIC – Al Qaeda gets 7%.

Which country is the greatest threat to the region?  Easy one Israel at 40% – but it’s down from 47% two years ago, US is 29% and Iran at 10%.


61% of respondents see Iran as pursuing a sectarian foreign policy versus 43% for Saudi Arabia, the country with the most sectarian policy is Iraq (65%).  Views of Iranian nuclear weapons programme is pretty evenly split with 38% supporting and 42% against.

Perceptions of the impact of the Arab Spring have become increasingly negative.  The two countries outside the region that are now seen as having the most positive impact are China and Russia (both at 38%)

Only 33% of Saudis approve of the military coup in Egypt versus 67% of Egyptians.  The former is interesting given the vocal government support for the coup.  Average regional approval is 43%

Finally only 44% of people in the region admit to having watched a TV series from the US versus Egypt, Turkey and Syria have penetration rates between 67 and 69%

German Democracy Support in Middle East

I’ve written before about the difficulties of democracy assistance programmes, so you might be interested in this piece from the International Herald Tribune, Judy Dempsey reports on the view of participants in a German scholarship programme for young people from the Middle East.

While welcoming the programme the graduates comment on who gets to participate –

The German Parliament’s scholarship has particular weaknesses. The Parliament’s administration asked the German Embassy in Cairo for help in finding participants. The embassy then contacted the foundations and other prominent nongovernmental organizations, choosing established, predictable channels rather than reaching out to different strata of society

The problem is that any programme large enough to make a difference is not going to fly because of the expense and because regional governments are not going to allow it.    As the report mentions

“Our government, for example, hates the foundations,” said Imen Nefzi, 29, who is involved in a nongovernmental organization in Tunisia. “They think we are foreign agents, that we are trying to undermine the system. It is not easy trying to build democracy even on a small level.”

Some German nonprofit organizations — like the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party — have been under constant pressure by the Egyptian authorities since 2011. Last June, its offices and property were confiscated.

Another issue was who to support

Others said that the Europeans were too selective. They supported only liberal parties while shunning the moderate Islamist movements that represent large parts of these countries’ populations

Well worth a read to get some local perspective on the democracy support activitity.


Nadia von Maltzahn on Syrian-Iranian Cultural Diplomacy

Nadia von Maltzahn’s, The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East is one of the more unexpected contributions to the literature of public diplomacy on several grounds.  Firstly, there are few bilateral studies of public engagement, secondly, while there are many studies of public engagement by authoritarian regimes I can’t think of another one where the target is another authoritarian regime and thirdly, it’s about Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes.    Fourthly, this is a bilateral study where the author knows both the languages involved and has been able to get a degree of cooperation from people involved.

The study traces the development of cultural relations activities between the two countries since the independence of Syria after the Second World War up until the outbreak of the current conflict in 2011.  Although Iran and Syria concluded a friendship treaty in the 1950s and a cultural agreement in the 1970s relations between the two were a low priority.  After the Iranian revolution geopolitical interests – including antagonism to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel and the US brought the two countries together creating a relationship that has endured despite differences over Lebanon and Syria’s participation in the US led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991.  At its heart this is a relationship driven by politics and cultural relations work is there to support the diplomatic relationship.

As von Maltzahn shows there’s been a distinct imbalance in the relationship it’s Iran who’s been much more committed to cultural work.  Iran has a distinctive language and culture as well as its revolutionary tradition.  On the other hand Syria prides itself on its commitment to Arab unity which makes a claim of cultural distinctiveness problematic, how it distinguishes itself is through its hardline rejectionist stance.  The result is that Iran has spent heavily on a cultural centre in Damascus plus regional activities.  The instruments at work are familiar; language courses, magazines, lectures, support for the teaching of Persian in Syrian universities, film festivals, scholarships and so on.  The Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus opened its doors in 1983, Syria did not reciprocate until 2005 and on a much smaller scale.  While Iran sees foreign public engagement as a routine part of its statecraft the Syrian Centre in Tehran is more of a one off – ironically, because of the state of relations between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, it had the potential to become a more significant part of the Iranian cultural scene than the Syrians perhaps realised.

As well as looking at the cultural centres von Maltzahn includes a chapter devoted to the experiences of students from the two countries and one on Iranian religious tourism in Syria.  As with other tourists Iran’s move within predictable patterns and don’t engage much with Syrians beyond that.  Rather than increasing Syrian understanding of Iran most of the tourists are relatively poor and rural and may have a negative impact on perceptions in Syria.

From the point of view of scholars of public diplomacy this will seem like a rather exotic study but the practices of cultural relations work will seem very familiar.  Highly recommended.

Beirut, France and the History of Cultural Relations

Working through the backlog of International Herald Tribunes left by my recent trips  I came across this article by Jay Cheshes on the continuing cultural presence of France in Beirut

“A Frenchman can easily live in Beirut without feeling displaced,” said Mr. Gougeon, who moved to the Lebanese capital from Paris in 1999, as he sipped local wine in Villa Clara’s leafy backyard after cooking a dinner of crispy-skinned duck confit and old-fashioned île flottante.

For more than a century, through all manner of turmoil, including a 15-year civil war and, more recently, ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, a distinctly French character has pervaded the city. Much of it is the legacy of the French colonial period — the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943 — but a cultural kinship goes back much further than that.

But how did this cultural kinship come into being?  Well it was deliberately created.  Lebanon, and the Levant more broadly, is the founding site of modern cultural relations work.  From the middle of the 19th century France supported the work of the Lazarist order in developing a network of schools in the region – for the Lazarists education was their secret weapon to defeat the advance of protestant (mainly American) missionaries.  The schools taught French and drew on a mixture of private and state funding from France.  The result was that French came to displace Greek and Italian as the lingua franca of the region. Unable to match the military or economic strength of Britain France chose culture as its instrument.

In turn the Lazarist schools inspired the Alliance Israelite Universelle develop its own network work of schools in the region which in turn provided an inspiration for the Alliance Francaise.  Over the course of the 19th century the ad hoc system of support and encouragement in one region of the world provided the inspiration for France’s global cultural network.

If you are looking for evidence that cultural strategies work France’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean through the century after 1850 provides a pretty good case to look at.  The irony is that a really successful strategy becomes invisible because its results seem so natural.

Do We Need American Political Warfare in the Middle East?

Max Boot and Michael Doran  have posted an essay at the Council for Foreign Relations calling for the United States to reinvigorate a campaign of  political warfare to counter anti-American influences in the Middle East.  Among the challengers they list “Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various Salafist organizations.”

They explicitly cite the inspiration of the early Cold War in the approach and quote from one of George Kennan’s PPS memos from 1948

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

They complain that none of America’s foreign affairs agencies has political warfare as a core mission with the result that (to use two of their examples) if an Iraqi politician or an anti-regime Iranian film-maker wants support who will provide it.  Boot and Doran argue for using the existing Counter Terrorism Strategic Communication set up as a basis for a cross-government coordinated programme, further State, DoD, USAID and CIA should create political warfare career tracks.

Given that America’s various public diplomacy strands tend to take on an unacknowledged tinge of political warfare it’s nice to see the issue being explicitly addressed.  In principle the ability to coordinate all the instruments of national power in pursuit of a ‘national goals’ is a good thing.

But I’m not entirely convinced

At the end of their first paragraph Boot and Doran call for the US to develop a political warfare strategy but their entire piece is about the instruments and methods of political warfare.

This leads to the central question: what is the political strategy and how does it fit with US objectives and policies in the Middle East and globally?

As an approach to statecraft political warfare inverts Clausewitz and treats politics as the continuation of war in that the other is to be defeated or destroyed.  Indeed the most enthusiastic embrace of political warfare has been from regimes that deny the legitimacy of their opponents (for instance the USSR facing the capitalist world) or see themselves dealing with an existential threat that requires the use of any and all means, the situation that Kennan saw in 1948.   The reason that Clausewitz subordinates strategy to policy is because policy is the level at which different objectives and political considerations are integrated, balanced and ranked.  The problem with political warfare is that it tends to pretend that this political complexity can be ignored and that it is possible to simply focus on damaging the opponent.

In contrast diplomacy seeks to manage the relationship with the other and to balance multiple objectives and relationships.  The historical record shows that the targets of peacetime political warfare tend not to collapse and that the country employing PW finds itself  managing the interaction between the two approaches to statecraft with greater or lesser degrees of success.   Fans of political warfare methods (the USSR or Hitler) frequently found their diplomacy torpedoed because their unconventional methods hadn’t managed to overthrow the opponent merely to irritate them.

Hence the number one requirement for political warfare is a political strategy that allows not just the coordination of means but the prioritization of objectives.  So in thinking about a political warfare strategy for the Middle East the US needs to consider what sort of Middle East it would like to see (and what sort of region it can actually produce), and how the methods and consequences of PW (intended and unintended) will feed into outcomes given the reaction of other players.  Just developing a strategy based on countering hostile forces isn’t sufficient.  For instance Boot and Doran’s list of threats suggests an elementary set of political strategies (Sun Tzu 101): promote conflict between extremist Shia and Sunni factions (and provide covert help to both sides) – while this would weaken anti-US factions and distract them it would also escalate the level of violence and instability in the region.

A few lessons from Cold War experience.

  1. One of the basic strategies of US Cold War political warfare was to support anti-communist socialists, what was known as the non-communist left (NCL). This was not to the taste of many congressmen.  If we are looking at the Middle East who is your NCL?  Who can you back that can actually make a difference and is acceptable to congressional oversight?
  2. There are many examples of Cold War groups taking the money and following their own agenda. Just because a politician says that he’s pro-American don’t expect him to follow your agenda.
  3. By the second half of the 1950s it was already clear that covert support for anti-communist groups was a trap in that the support could not be kept hidden indefinitely and that when it came out it would have consequence both for the US and the groups that they had supported. Discussions of some sort of overt funding mechanism that would eventually yield the NED have quite a long history.
  4. One of the basic criticisms of covert methods of statecraft is that they often function as a substitute for policy resulting in a series of opportunistic improvisations that do not lead anywhere in particular.


I would argue that Boot and Doran are right that the US should look hard at coordinating its tools, looking at ways in which it can undermine and block threatening forces.  I would also look at the ability to use covert methods to support friendly forces in particular circumstances (this is a job for the CIA).

But…I’m sceptical about a broad PW push in the absence of a broader political strategy for the region, I don’t just mean some general aspirations but a theory of change that will get you there  – Kennan’s advocacy of PW was in the context of a strategy of containment in a bipolar international order,  the Middle East is a much messier environment.  I’m not convinced that the US can formulate or execute a coordinated programme of political warfare in support of a coherent political strategy.