Strategic Communications: Fail

Today’s Tripoli Post:


In case it’s hard to read the text:

Photo: A US soldier with Delta Company 4th Brigade combat team, 2-508, 82nd parachute infantry Regiment, intimidating an Afghan Muslim praying in the Arghandab valley in Kandahar province, February 25, 2010.


15 thoughts on “Strategic Communications: Fail”

  1. AL, is your criticism that NATO is failing at winning hearts-and-minds of the Muslim population at large (such as in Libya), or that the photo caption is deliberately deceptive (and thus a “fail”)?

    Wikipedia has the Tripoli Post listed as a “private” newspaper in Libya, but “press freedom there appears dubious at best”: under Col. Gaddafi, so I have to wonder whether the headline is an accurate measure of the temperature of the people, or just a reflection of the propaganda needs of the regime right now. If the latter, we’ll be waiting a long, long time before that tone changes, no matter what our side does.

  2. I think you may have ahold of the wrong end of the stick here, Marc. What is that soldier actually doing? Threatening the chap, guarding him, or protecting him? I think the answer is that we can’t tell from that picture and, consequently, it can be spun in any direction one might care to.

    The “fail” here is that as long as we can’t or won’t control how the information is acquired or used we can’t control the message, either.

  3. Funny, to me it looks like a telephoto lens shot, where the soldier is standing some distance away from both the photographer and the kid praying.

  4. Sorry I wasn’t clearer – the fact that ME papers (even the ones run by crazy dictators) run stories and captions like that is a massive failure on the part of our efforts at strategic communication. Nothing we do today successfully reaches those audiences, and that’s a disaster.


  5. My point exactly. How can we control what’s printed in state-controlled newspapers in other countries? We can’t even produce a counter-message.

  6. I am intensely curious as to exact what specific “strategic communication” process is going to stop dictators who make fomenting hatred against America and the infidel part of their policy (even as some gladly accept large amounts of American aid), from doing exactly that in their state-run media.

    Perhaps you could enlighten me.

    bq. “…the fact that ME papers (even the ones run by crazy dictators) run stories and captions like that is a massive failure on the part of our efforts at strategic communication. Nothing we do today successfully reaches those audiences, and that’s a disaster.”

    You’re right. We will have a very hard time reaching an audience whose Muslim clerics and national governments are busy preaching hate. It’s not clear to me that any “strategic communication” process will solve that, especially a process that refuses to challenge either of the main sources of transmission for that hate.

  7. How “permeable” are the electronic borders? I remember apocryphal stories of the failure of the Saudi restriction of personal-use sat-TV dishes to limit the “Baywatch” fan base in Saudi Arabia, and I wonder, just from a tech standpoint, how we’d get “content” to the folks you’d like to persuade (TV? Internet? does anyone anywhere even still OWN a shortwave radio?)…

  8. Marc,

    Having a message of “hey your government is lying” that we pointedly aim at middle eastern populations is going to create issues with their host governments. Who aren’t going to be pleased if, for example the same photo shows up with a very different caption, or story, attached to it. As a pointed retort that covers the basic falsity of their government’s previous reporting.

    Hostile states like Iran and Syria, sounds great. But Libya is no longer considered officially hostile.

    We may decide not to give a damn if this creates issues in Libya, Egypt, or pretty much any other Arab country you could name. Because all of them, to varying degrees and at varying levels of quasi-remove from direct orders, do exactly what we’re seeing here from Libya. If we do decide not to give a damn, however, we can’t pretend it won’t have consequences.

    Or that we won’t ultimately have to escalate to messages that would, if believed, have the effect of seriously undermining the governments in question.

    If you’re not prepared to come out and say “this is a lie, spread by people associated with your government, in order to distract you from their own corruption and your own failure of a society”… then why are we bothering to compete in this arena you define? Because until that dynamic is much more explicitly recognized in the Middle East, its culture offers very little hope for peace, or sanity in reports like these.

    Iraq has been something of an exception, with lots of Iraqis getting mad at regional Arab networks. Probably because they were the ones being blown up by the Muslim fanatics that those networks support. Nothing like being on the sharp end of the stick, with the war taking place on YOUR territory and Islamists blowing up people you value – as opposed to outsiders or infidels. Correcting the lies thus became a personal matter, as the lies were directly reaching an audience that was directly aggrieved by them.

    My proposal would be 2-fold for strategic messaging.

    One… a messaging campaign in the USA and Europe, highlighting these kinds of coverage, and also hateful pronouncements by senior Islamic clerics et. al. the backlash provoked would create strong pressure on dishonest Muslim governments to rethink the wisdom of an approach that has heretofore been costless.

    Two… a messaging campaign in the Islamic world, which would mostly avoid the kind of things you’re citing here, and seek to influence much broader cultural messages about a sense of civilizational failure, and the emerging conversation that is happening in the Arab/Islamic world re: what to do about it. Underlying messages would include _both_ the importance of religion in creating a governable society, _and_ the inherent issue with theocracy, which inevitably gets religion dragged down to the level of corrupt politics.

    The first bit clarifies what the fight is about (“it’s the hate, stupid!”), and also increases the pressure on both governments and individual Muslims to distance themselves from, and oppose, their hate-spewing brethren. Thereby forcing the conversation associated with the 2nd wing. Which adds another element that is unfriendly to the Sharia set, and opens up more space for people like Islam’s Sufis, Oman’s Ibadis, Sistani and his points within the Shi’ite community, etc.

    Note that neither of these elements would seem to respond directly to articles like the one in the Tripoli Post. Though annoyed citizens (esp. veterans) might… and that would be all to the good.

  9. I understand the difficulty of demonstrating a negative, but I have to agree with Joe that this isn’t a particularly good example of a ‘fail’ – which would seem to connote some intentionality on the part of USG.

    Khaddafi’s house organs publish propaganda, and he’s continuing to oppose us in ‘soft’ ways, particularly when he thinks we aren’t looking. Who knew?

    Joe’s #10 seems more to the point, and would make a good start for a top level post: What is a reasonable strategic communications strategy going forward, given that the world is now information-transparent, and anything you say at home is visible elsewhere, and vice versa. (And for extra credit, the strategy must be reasonably stable across administrations, or it is no strategy at all.)

  10. Actually, I’m demonstrating why we don’t (yet) WANT an effective communications strategy, as a society. When that changes, we’ll get one.

    Right now, we’re way too busy lying to ourselves, to think about telling others the truth.

    bq. “Joe, you’re demonstrating that we have no communications strategy”

  11. If you wanted one, you could adopt China’s. They apply significant pressure to anyone who says anything critical using any apparatus. It doesn’t work very well on the US, but it works extremely well in the third world; and thus China is nearly always portrayed well there.

    Of course, that contradicts an expressed value of ours, which is freedom of the press. It’s much like the way that our expressed value of freedom of religion is being exploited by certain enemies in the name of Jihad. The problem is, we really do believe in these values: it’s hard to give them up, and it’s not clear that we should give them up just because they’re expensive.

  12. My point exactly, Dave (and Joe). Where’s the counter-message?

    What – other than this nonsense – do people in the Middle East hear about us or about what we’re doing?

    I bitched at Bush for exactly the same thing…we have no message, wee have no messaging capability, we’re not even trying.


  13. Joe, you’re demonstrating that we have no communications strategy – I get it that’s hard, but it’s vital, ignored, and we’re losing the information war pretty badly.

    Which doesn’t help us in the for-real war much at all.


  14. @Grim – well, that’d be one approach…but I’m guessing that there are a host of others that piggyback on American culture and the openness and success that comes from openness here.

    Personally, given what I know about the problem young Middle eastern men face in dating and marriage, I’d be running a series on young Muslim married couples in the US, and how easy it is to make enough to have one’s own place and afford to be wed.

    I see that as a significant cultural weakness that we ought to be exploiting – among many.

    But it’s no one’s job, so no one does it…


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