Preparing to Lose the Information War?

It has now been eight years since 9/11 and we finally seem to understand that in the modern struggles against terrorism, insurgency, and instability, the tools of public diplomacy are invaluable and essential. We live in a world where an individual with a camera phone can wield more influence than an F-22 stealth fighter jet. The capability of engaging public audiences has long been thought of as the domain of civilians. But for the past eight years, the functions, authorities, and funding for engaging global audiences, from anti-AIDS literature to soccer balls to development projects, has migrated from the State Department to the Defense Department. It seems whole forests have fallen over the same period on the need to enhance civilian agencies - be it the State Department or a new USIA-like entity - to provide a valid alternative to the Defense Department who most, even the detractors, agree was filling a void left by civilians who abrogated their responsibility for one reason or another. This summer may be a turning point. Some in Congress have unilaterally decided that 2010 is the year America's public diplomacy will stop wearing combat boots. Sounds good, right? This is the future most, including analysts and the military, have wished for. The military has been the unwilling (if passionate once engaged) and often clumsy surrogate and partner for the State Department in representing the US and its interests in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world through what the House Armed Services Committee now calls "military public diplomacy." In some regions, State is almost wholly dependent on Defense money and resources to accomplish its mandate.

The Pentagon has wanted more robust civilian capabilities and leadership that for some time Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen have offered to give some of their budget to State. Well, according to the defense subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, that time is now.

Back in July, the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee decided that the Defense Department's role in strategic communication - a term often used as a synonym to public diplomacy - was too much. Wielding the only tool in their kit bag, the appropriations committee slashed 80% of the requested budget for information activities. (The initially - and widely - reported budget of $900m was an estimate, the actual was a third less but the committee's red lines remained unchanged. Further, one reporter reported the $900m was for "ten programs", but in fact the "10" in question was not numerals but letters, as in "Information Operations").

This week, the Senate's defense subcommittee for appropriations weighed in with their cut that will effectively remove the boots from public diplomacy. The next step is for the two committees to hash out the final numbers in conference.

There are two problems with this. First, appropriations - which funds - never coordinated with the armed services committees - which authorizes. In fact, the armed services committees in the House and Senate were both blindsided having issued their reports and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 prior to the House appropriations action in July. The armed services committee, particularly the House committee, while noting the problems at Defense and requesting remediation in the areas of accountability, leadership, workforce capabilities, and coordination of "military public diplomacy" actually asked Defense to expand, stating the "committee encourages the development of strategic communications capability within the Department of Defense as a softpower complement to traditional hard-power tools."

The world revolves around more than just Defense and it appears the defense appropriators are guilty of ignoring the comprehensive approach on which they based their criticism of the Pentagon. Many have declared, including this author, that many of public diplomacy-like activities (such as development and training civic leaders) should be lead if not outright conducted by civilian institutions like the State Department. But the defense appropriators never spoke to the State Department appropriators (the well-named foreign operations subcommittee of Appropriations) or to the House Foreign Affairs Committee or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So, while the boots are coming off public diplomacy, the wingtips may not be showing up anytime soon. State simply does not have the capacity now nor has there been anything remotely resembling an in-kind increase in funding and authorities to absorb the responsibilities that most, including in State, agree should be in State. (It does not even have the contractor culture or capacity that Defense does to support a surge in capacity.)

The State Department is simply not capable of accepting the tasks that the defense appropriators want it to take. Will State be capable? Assuming the appropriate Congressional committees (House Foreign Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations, and Foreign Operations subcommittees of both House and Senate Appropriations) aren't distracted with the normal business of returning from recess and the one or two other pieces of legislation the members are dealing with (like health care reform), State must first get to its feet. Remember too that Secretary Clinton and Undersecretary McHale are still trying to get situated and reorganize. Then there the small issue that the US Agency for International Development remains leaderless. A gap solution could be transitioning activities to be under State leadership even if "sub-contracted" Defense (a likely gap solution) or to real contractors (the bane of many and the cause of pushback against Defense activities from other quarters).

It would seem that the appropriators believe that as the Defense filled a void, their retreat will be filled by State. But is this neither realistic - especially considering that the defense appropriators acted after the foreign operations appropriators - nor sensible.

There is no disputing that the current situation is undesirable but there must be a transition. Funding is cut, not transferred - the defense appropriators only have the authority to add and subtract. Current and future programs will suffer - including those run by the State Department that are in part or wholly dependent on Defense funding and resources eliminated by the appropriators. This will undermine the stability of our presence and create vacuums that are adversaries will fill and use to show we are not a reliable partner. It will take much more time and resources to catch up than if there was an orderly transition from Defense to State.

The impact of the unilateral decision to remove Defense from the field may be significant. While Defense has wanted the attention to fix its own house, this is more than it wanted as it quite simply threatens the President's goals for Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere.

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