by Shawn Powers
Probably not. But he did register his strong disapproval of the DOD’s decision to enlist an additional $300 million of support for “media services” (formerly known as information and psychological operations) from four U.S. private contractors. Criticisms of the plan were logged here at Intermap, on Matt Armstrong’s MountainRunner, and at Marc Lynch’s Abu Aardvark. Simply put, some of the smartest minds in PD noted this to be one in a long line of bad decisions to move US PD efforts back into a Cold War mentality of communications that will simply not work in today’s increasingly networked and transparent society. The DOD’s efforts to propagandize Iraqis into forgetting the ravaging of their society that was prompted by the US-led invasion fail to meet the standards of what effective public diplomacy today requires. Importantly, this is not simply a waste of resources, but it risks discrediting other more appropriate public diplomacy efforts throughout the region. How can any administration ask for Arab citizens to trust the news they hear on Radio Sawa when it openly supports the manipulation of media in Iraq? Knowledge of this DOD effort inevitably spills over into broader thinking of US public diplomacy as a whole. Simply changing the name of propaganda from information and psychological operations to media services makes not a fooled Arab citizenry. Credibility is a prerequisite to any effective public diplomacy initiative, and the DOD’s communications work in Iraq is part and parcel of why US PD efforts more broadly lack credibility in the region.
Yesterday, Senator Webb issued a letter to Defense Secretary Gates asking Gates to “put these contracts on hold until the Armed Services Committee and the next Administration can review the entire issue of U.S. propaganda efforts inside Iraq.” Senate Committee on Armed Services chairman Carl Levin was CC’ed and issued an additional letter asking him to schedule hearings on the matter first thing in the new in 2009.
Webb makes a number of compelling arguments: (1) the US government is in grave financial distress; (2) The Iraqi government is not and in fact has $79 billion in cash on hand; (3) Despite our best efforts (that’s me, not Webb), Iraq is now a sovereign country, with its own government, policies and opinions; (4) Funding propaganda efforts in sovereign foreign countries typically raises eyebrows and is likely to face opposition from the Iraqi government, the Iraqi people, or more likely, both. So far so good. In debate we would call this a pretty strong initial salvo of arguments.
Senator Webb doesn’t stop there, however. Perhaps foreshadowing what American PD would look like under an Obama administration, Webb takes a few more swings at Secretary Gates and the DOD’s strategic communications efforts in Iraq, arguing the move to further fund DOD information operations: (1) further disparages the Department of State’s efforts in Iraq (where, it seems, he’d rather see the money going); (2) is contradictory to the National Defense Authorization Act’s (and thus, Congress’) call to better coordinate strategic communications in Iraq with the Department of State; and (3) will likely end up violating Congressional statute given the likelihood that the contractors “media services” will not only be read by Iraqis, but Americans too (Smith-Mundt, etc).
I look forward to see how this plays out. Secretary Gates, we’re awaiting your rebuttal.