A blast from the past, which was ignored previously.
March 2, 2008
By Daniel Gallington – If there ever was a truly objective assessment of how effectively we have
waged the war on terrorism, at the top of the “failures” side of the list would be our inability to
get our strategic message out in a way that was coordinated and consistent with our objectives
on the battlefield.
In a nutshell, we allowed the traditional “public affairs” functions of our government to take
precedence over the strategic “information operations” necessary to win the hearts and minds
of local populations. You might say: “So what?” or “What’s the difference?” or even “Why
should I care?” All good questions and ones that we haven’t (so far) asked ourselves as part of
a conscious, decision-making process to favor traditional public affairs over strategic
So, what is the difference? Simple: Public affairs is telling people what’s happening in
government — but to an audience that can be reasonably sophisticated. In short, it’s what press
secretaries do. Information operations and/or public diplomacy is what the bad guys are doing
to us so effectively: telling their side of the story, advertising their successes, maximizing our
failures and minimizing their losses. In short, it’s campaign advertising with a central and
persistent message. And, we know that it’s extremely effective — especially with less
sophisticated audiences, such as those who populate much of the Muslim world. If you want to
see some of these operations relentlessly at work against us, look at most of the material on Al
Well, if it works so well, why haven’t we been doing it? After all, we invented modern
advertising. The answer is simple: internal Bush administration politics.
It started innocently enough in 2001 when President Bush brought his public affairs team with
him from Texas, and put the person in charge of it (a close friend and confidant) in a
predominant position of influence in the White House. Furthermore, the president’s public affairs
person was in direct “staff to staff” communication with her counterparts at Defense and State,
and as a result, the public affairs functions at these agencies quickly gained disproportionate
“clout” in comparison to other key staff functions, e.g., policy, legal and special operations. And,
because the president’s public affairs person was accustomed to “speaking for the president,”
she often communicated this to her State and Defense counterparts, who used it to further
enhance their own influence in their departments.
This may have been harmless enough for a nation at peace, and would have merited at most a
footnote in someone’s historical account of the George W. Bush administration. In addition, and
prior to September 11, 2001, the public affairs function at the White House saw no reason to —
and therefore did not — understand the nature, purpose and function of the National Security
Council (NSC), and the two functions worked in vertical “pipelines” with their counterparts at
State and Defense.
September 11, and our reaction to it, changed all of that: In essence, White House public affairs
quickly claimed all of the bureaucratic turf that involved telling any part of any public anything
concerning the war — and they got away with it. The newly organized “Office of Strategic
Information” in the Pentagon, for example, was ordered shut down because it was inconsistent
with the public affairs predominance in all things related to information about the war. In other
words, the war didn’t need a strategic information component, it just needed a press secretary.
Believe it or not, there was even a serious effort — in 2002 — to subordinate the NSC to the
public affairs function at the White House, in direct contradiction of public law. While this
ultimately failed, it was a very determined internal takeover attempt and demonstrated the
fragility of the current NSC structure at the White House.
Now for the “down and dirty” part of this sad but true story:
The war on terror is primarily an ideological war and we must fight that part of it as hard and as
creatively as we do on the battlefield.
We haven’t done this, and it cost us dearly in the battle for local and in-theatre public support,
which instead was converted into support for the enemy — and mostly as a result of their own
aggressive information operations against us.
The military specialty for “Information Operations,” a long-time mission of U.S. Special
Operations, has largely been unable to gain the traction and influence necessary to make a
difference on the ground — even in very local theatres of operation, let alone at the strategic
Probably most significant, “strategic” information operations prosecuted overseas and targeted
against terrorist propaganda have not been allowed to develop and mature because they were
perceived as bureaucratic threats to the traditional public affairs function of our government.
Ironically, efforts to get strategic information operations off the ground were countered by
aggressive public affairs campaigns against them inside our own government.
If we are serious about actually winning the war on terror, we must implement and sustain
widespread and effective information operations and public diplomacy programs at both the
local and strategic level. This effort has very little in common with dealing with the various press
corps and is simply not the work for press secretaries and traditional public affairs people.
Perhaps a new administration will, at last, be able to bring this enormously effective tool to bear
against Muslim extremism, whether the war on the ground continues or not. That being said, there is still no excuse for our long and persistent record of amateurish public diplomacy failures. It is squarely the fault of a few of the president’s very closest friends. Like a few others in this category, it looks like they didn’t know any better.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.