Off the cuff: Part 1.5 of What the SecDef Didn't Say

"Today, American public diplomacy wears combat boots." This is how I started the post the Small Wars Journal that intentionally implied more than it stated. In an era when fewer Americans know a soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman, the global audience increasingly shapes their opinion by our armed forces. While this irony is seemingly lost on our chief diplomat, Condoleezza Rice, and our chief public diplomat, Karen Hughes, it fortunately isn't lost on Mr. Gates. Also not lost on Mr. Gates is the importance of information in today's struggle over minds and wills. As I've written elsewhere, increased information asymmetry decreases the fungibility of force. The recent U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual understands that, although it does not use these words to say so. What we need is less of a focus on precision-guided munitions and greater attention on precision-guided media.

On November 26, 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, speaking at Kansas State University, recalled how the United States marshaled its national power at the beginning of the Cold War. He reminded his audience that sixty years ago the United States dramatically restructured itself in the face of a global threat and passed the National Security Act of 1947 as well as created the United States Information Agency and the United States Agency for International Development, among other agencies and institutions. The success of all of these was the timely creation and transmission of quality information, or truthful propaganda, in the face of an enemy capriciously leveraging the global communications revolution in the post war era.

In his clarion call to revamp the current structures of government to meet modern threats, Mr. Gates sidestepped an obstacle that has been misinterpreted and misapplied over the last three decades: Public Law 402: United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, commonly known as the Smith-Mundt Act. Despite popular belief, the restrictions the Act is known for today were not designed or intended to be a prophylactic for sensitive American eyes and ears.

My post at the Small Wars Journal focused on what the Act was intended to do. It was my intention to imply more than I said and it should not have been difficult for readers to see similarities in criticisms and solutions between then and now. It was my intent to convey to the reader that the Act was a good Act, perhaps the best that could be created in the acrimonious Congress of the time, and that the real issue today is the perversion of the Act that has occured over the last several decades. I included the many historical quotes to show, if implicitly, the parallel in the criticisms of our strategic communications then with those of today.

The key requisite to tell the truth isn't the problem and neither is the requirement to explain American policy. However today, like what Smith-Mundt sought to fix, American public diplomacy (or strategic communications or whatever name it goes by in your denomination) today does not explain policy. Modern public diplomacy largely explains the American lifestyle with weak attempts to explain policy, but with a partisan bent. Truth is obfuscated or sterilized to be almost worthless. Good examples of this are the "Shared Values" campaign and the engagements w/ Cal Ripkin and Michelle Kwon. It's hard to argue that State's blog response team, by posting "official government positions" in the comments of blogs and on discussion boards is what Smith-Mundt intended. On the contrary, these weak efforts are actually what Smith-Mundt wanted to prevent. Shared Values was much less effective than its creators hoped just like a program made by a well-intentioned South American (don't recall which country off the top of my head) employee of VOA who made horribly stereotypical (even for the time; there was a bit in there about Indian maidens running around topless) description of the U.S. that it was used against us.

Smith-Mundt created an agency that was to build trust and long lasting relationships with foreign audiences, something our current PD institutions (save IMET, the Office of Naval Research's small Science Visitor Program, as well as some other small programs) do not function very well anymore. For example, State's International Visitor Program has been gutted and is a mere shell of its former self. Smith-Mundt funded or encouraged these initiatives to be better than they are today.

Perhaps more importantly is the impact Smith-Mundt has had institutionally. For some reason - I like to think it's because as Defense took on State's responsibilities it also took on its restrictions - the Defense Department sees itself under Smith-Mundt. This has reduced the effectiveness of American strategic communications and information operations (until the OSD(P) Office to Support Public Diplomacy was stood up, nobody dared say DOD did "public diplomacy", that was always something State did, DOD did "public affairs and that's it). I think there's an argument to be made, for example, that the Zarqawi "blooper" tape disclosure was poorly handled because PAOs were institutionally and culturally handicapped by their aversion to "propaganda". The Naval Postgraduate School is now conducting executive training for senior officers for whom PAOs work in the importance and conduct of strategic comm. to better direct and utilize their PAOs. This is a weaker part of my argument and not something I'm putting out there yet because I need to do more research. But I find it interesting that DOD's General Counsel thinks DOD is covered by Smith-Mundt. And it is interesting that in 2004, CJCS General Myers reinforced the firewall between PA and IO. There is an institutional issue of preventing horizontal integration for IO/SC/PD that Smith-Mundt addressed, but again, has been lost.

My argument is not that Smith-Mundt should necessarily be dumped outright, but at the very least it should be revisited. The first reaction of many is Smith-Mundt muzzles and prevents activities. It does not. Smith-Mundt needs to be revised because the nature of communications is different today than it was back then. This includes who is talking ( e.g. many more agencies are speaking for foreign audiences today), how they are talking (e.g. internet, radio, tv, print, exchange, meatspace presence like bases and offices, etc), and what is being said (e.g. cultural and socio-political awareness). It * may* need to be repealed because fixing it is too troublesome and replacing it is better. As I noted on the SWJ discussion board, I've been told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was willing to revisit Smith-Mundt not too long ago, but the House committee was very opposed to the idea.  

I have a bunch of "working thoughts" on Smith-Mundt that I'm still hashing out. The first suggestion in this "working thoughts" is Smith-Mundt must simply be revisited and discussed. It covers less than people feel and it has been overly and improperly extended to cover more than it was ever intended. Second is we must return to late 1940's and 1950's - the beginning of the Cold War when spheres of influence were still drawn with pencils and not ink - and return information as a key tool in fighting the enemy. Mr. Gates understands the importance of managing perceptions, it is time the U.S. really returns to the whole of government approach (discussed at the USG COIN conference). Commerce, Agriculture, DHS, as well as State and Defense all shape foreign opinions. The battleground of the minds is not just in regions where the bullets are flying. They are in Europe (Hamburg and Madrid and Paris and London...) and Africa and Asia and the Americas (collaboration between drug traffickers and terrorists is on the rise and not a facet of globalization we should be proud of). Third, America's chief public diplomat must, as it was in the past, be more independent and resourced than Karen Hughes is(was) today. This person must have a seat in the cabinet, have a staff, and a substantial budget.

There will be more on this in the coming days as I post part II of the Smith-Mundt critique.

See also this critique on the Heritage Backgrounder on Smith-Mundt.