Blogger's Roundtables and PRTs in Iraq

Unfortunately I missed the Blogger Roundtable on PRTs in Iraq with Philip Reeker, counselor for Public Affairs at the Department of State out of the US Embassy, Baghdad. On the call were Andrew Lubin of On Point, Grim of Blackfive, Dave Dilegge of Small Wars Journal / Small Wars Council (go to SWJ's post for a good summary of questions as well as background resources), Austin Bay, Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club, David Axe of Aviation Week, Charlie Quidnunc of Whizbang, and Jason Sigger of Armchair Generalist. But not me, the wife's conference call at the same time and my son waking up messed up my schedule. However, I do have the transcript of this valuable and allegedly secret-handshake-required conference call.

Before getting into the call, I want to talk about the loop I didn't even know existed three weeks ago. The loop is DOD's connection to new media, providing information directly to influential bloggers as well as traditional media. It is doing a tremendous job of making resources available to new thought leaders that have either direct or (often deep) indirect connections to traditional media, not to mention John Q. Public in the US and around the world.

DOD's outreach program is smartly run. The Chief of New Media Operations, Charles "Jack" Holt, is an old hand at public affairs and in personal conversations gets the perception problems of the US military with both the domestic US audience and where they are operating. He knows and has seen Americans on deployment in hotspots in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, as it true today and even when things were safer in Iraq, American forces roll up in full battle rattle ready to engage the enemy and not the public. It is the latter that requires the engagement and the attention.

Compare this effort by the DOD to State's. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the topic of the Friday, Aug 4 call, is focused on engaging people and building capacity. Grim at Blackfive.net noted the unusual appearance of State on the DOD conference call, but where else would the PRTs go to get the word out? State isn't doing outreach. They don't even know how in this environment. Karen Hughes' office, the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, uses "four or five" bloggers to surf the blogosphere, find misleading and wrong statement, and correct them with official US government statements.

Pressured to do the same, DOD's Jack Holt decided to provide access to thought leaders in the blogosphere directly, providing unvarnished, unfiltered information into the debate. We are not dealing with content provided by press secretaries, but with the subject matter experts who are directly and intimately involved. Put another way, it permeates the bubble of mainstream media, which nobody is apparently happy with, left or right, in which a few media organizations are represented through a physical presence to a virtual meeting of a virtual press, modern pamphleteers if you will. Often, the people in the blogger's roundtable are coming directly from a traditional press conference. But the access is not restricted to piggybacking on regular press briefings. We request access as well. In many respects, it democraticizes access to knowledge resources.

What people seem to latch on is that DOD is making these resources available. I think what they should focus is on why isn't State doing the same? Too often, I see how State doesn't know how to get the word out about its operations. As a result of this almost ironic lack of understanding, not unsurprising is that State asks for help from DOD for knowledge and advice on outreach.

In today's information age war, unrestricted or not, you're simply not winning if no one knows you're winning.

Now, back to the PRT call I missed.

Mr. Reeker began with a description and mission of the PRTs.

These are obviously, you know, civilian-military units led by a State Department officer. There are now 25 of them to date. There were originally about 10 and after the president announced the new way forward -- or the surge, as people have called it -- in January, we started building up and have added to it. So there are 10 original full-sized PRTs, five smaller ones and then 10 what we call embedded PRTs where the State Department, or the civilian team, works directly with the brigade combat and gets guidance both from the U.S. ambassador and the commanding general -- from General Petraeus and the folks here at MNFI.

The basic goal of these teams is to expand out into the provinces. Iraq is not a small country and it has no tradition, really, of local or diffused leadership or governance. It's been very centralized. Certainly, under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship the Ba'athist regime was a very centralized regime. These are kind of new concepts for a lot of these folks out in the region in the 18 provinces. And local government, as well as democracy as a whole, is sort of a new concept.

So these teams work directly with the local leaders to bolster moderate, and obviously promote reconciliation, which is a broad term, but helping them to recognize opportunities for compromise and accommodation. Also, we're trying to gain support for counterinsurgency operations. That's where the military side comes in. There's a lot of fostering of development. We have AID people -- USAID people at most of the PRTs and this is a kind of capacity building exercise, which in some ways is very useful to have even before you can undertake some of the more traditional major development programs.

And really, when you talk about capacity building a lot of it is for Iraqi officials -- how to perform their duties. They don't have a tradition, as I said, of local governance, how to interface with the central government. The ministries under Iraq's system have enormous power, but how do they get that out to the regions? How do the regions get what they feel they deserve and expect? And these teams can sort of help them with that.

Obviously, they focus more on a political environment rather than solid infrastructure. They are expeditionary in nature, so they aren't building big sites or infrastructure to be turned over to the Iraqis. The idea is they would, of course, move on at some point. Some of them, I think, have the potential -- like where I was in Mosul -- to be converted into consulates in due course and become essentially U.S. consulates in the major cities, Mosul being the second largest or third largest -- depending whose count you pay attention to -- city in Iraq.

I had wanted to ask a question about the Civilian Response Corps. Austin Bay posed a similar question, asking about a new Goldwater-Nichols Act to give civilian agencies an expeditionary capability, a capability State has been reticent, if simply for reasons of bureaucratic inertia, to adopt.

...Goldwater-Nichols for civilian agencies and the attempt to try to truly create expeditionary nation-building or developmental forces...this Goldwater-Nichols idea to me is something like anticipatory diplomacy. Are PRTs like -- first of all, would a Goldwater-Nichols for civilian agencies that put a premium on expeditionary experience be of use to you now? And secondly -- and again, I know this is more theoretical -- how would you see using that kind of a base to answer the kind of problems you've got in Iraq?

Mr. Reeker, responding with CRC in mind, nails it:

You know, I think those are very worthy points, and it's something that was picked up on earlier. You may have read in the past couple years the initiative to create a sort of rapid reaction force within the State Department -- interagency in many instances. There's a guy called Carlos Pasqual who has since retired from the Foreign Service -- I think he's at Brookings now -- who has written about this a bit. He headed up that effort for a couple of years, put in place these teams.

Again, some of it's people, you know, assigned and standing by, constantly reviewing, training, preparing for things; others -- sort of a reserve list, if you would, just as the military has such a thing -- people with specializations. So you know that, you know somebody has done a certain kind of work in Kosovo, you quickly grab them from their latest assignment, which may be an economic reporting officer in Cambodia, and you say, "Hey, we need you on a plane into Baghdad to spend the next three, maybe six months working at this PRT, applying some of the skill that you learned before." That's defin itely been identified as what we need. That's the sort of 21st century diplomacy that we need.

Now, we don't -- doesn't mean you give up your traditional diplomacy, which is not always well understood. We've got to have representation of the United States around the globe, but you've seen this sort of repositioning that they've done more recently since we have a finite number of diplomats. It really bring it home to you when we're here and working very closely with our military colleagues as we do -- you know, for every meeting I go to as the ambassador's counselor for public affairs -- I'm not joking -- there are probably 20 military people. And it's great. They get stuff done. They've got specializations. They've got it down to a great process. We just don't have the same culture or resources, certainly in terms of personnel.

I think a lot of looking at that will continue to go on. I think it is going on to a certain degree. And Ambassador Crocker has addressed this a bit. He got some press in The Washington Post that cited a cable that he had written sort of saying, "I need the right people." And that was to suggest that the people out here weren't good people, but it's, you know, getting the ones with the right skill sets and sort of saying, "Hey, if we're a department at war, we need to step up to this challenge."

And I think we've seen a little change, certainly in the couple of months I've been here. We're seeing more responsiveness. The team that Crocker has put together really is something...

Of course, as Austin Bay points out in a follow up that we are nearing the end of 2007 and we are finally ramping up the capabilities to do what is necessary. 

The reason lies in the new the leadership of the "Petraeus-Fallon-Mullen trio", as well as those subversives who share the same vision of past, present, and future, and their growing ability to fix the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld project. But, when people don't know you're winning, they assume you're losing, especially when unanswered enemy propaganda is spread in theater as well as globally.

As the PRTs demonstrate, gaining support is more than information, but actions. Deeds trump words. The other side gets it. We're still figuring it out, but we're better at institutionalizing and operationalizing the need.