Defining Public Diplomacy

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Propaganda may soon be returning to America’s airwaves. No, not the mainstream media liberals often deride as “Fox News” coverage. Nor the mainstream media Fox watchers deride as “liberal.” I mean honest-to-goodness propaganda, the kind that’s been legislatively limited in the United States since the end of World War Two.

Writing at Buzzfeed, Michael Hastings explains how a bipartisan House bill, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, has been attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA.) If it becomes law, it would eliminate the barrier between government-funded media produced for overseas consumption – most notably right now for Afghanistan – and domestic consumption by federal agencies.

“The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is simply too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online,” Hastings writes, while “critics of the bill say there are ways to keep America safe without turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens.”

You will probably not hear these materials being called “propaganda” by its proponents. “Propaganda” has an obviously negative connotation because its purpose is to ‘manufacture consent’, to borrow the title of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s now legendary book on propaganda. Technically, the materials that the authors of this legislation want to see disseminated domestically are “public diplomacy” materials, a phrase coined in the 1960s. Many countries have state agencies doing public diplomacy these days, with special emphasis on social media, Israel being the best known of the bunch. But state-produced media remains state-produced media, now matter how right and pure people think the government behind it is. It cannot be impartial.

America remains technically at war, even if the US government is no longer referring to its military efforts as being part of the “War on Terror.” For example, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act’s sponsors (and proponents) say that we’re still fighting al-Qaeda. There is logic to this: The US still occupies Afghanistan. American military advisors remain in various historic roles, such as “advising” the Yemeni army in a civil war. I could go on. The point is that these are all wars in the classic sense of the word W-A-R. Therefore, any media addressing events in these places is covering a war, plain and simple, waged by the people who provide the “public diplomats” with everything from patriotic talking points to office space, bandwidth, even press credentials.

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Since all wars have a home front – not just logistics and counterintelligence, but also the battlefield of public opinion – where does a government properly draw the line? One of the key federal agencies affected by the bill – the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – has oversight for foreign broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Liberty (RFE/L) and the Voice of America (VOA). Despite the bill ostensibly barring funding for anything that would “influence public opinion” domestically, precedent suggests it can’t. How can Americans who lived through Vietnam era forget how, following the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, they learned that Congress and the public were lied to repeatedly by the federal government and the US military? Does the word “disinformation,” from the Reagan era, ring any bells to Generation Xers? What about the Bush Administration’s claptrap about WMDs in the lead up to its 2003 invasion of Iraq?

The late Dr. Seuss was a propagandist. He knew that the Japanese were not really a nation of buck-toothed, near-sighted killers, as war bonds and recruiting posters depicted, but the US was at war and the Imperial Japanese Army had committed atrocities throughout Asia. It was “justified” imagery, though the subtleties of distinguishing Japanese war criminals from Japanese-American grocers were lost on most white folks. Prejudices would be reinforced by this imagery, just as it been generation before, in 1917 and 1898, when it was applied to German soldiers and Filipino guerillas. And as WIRED’s expose of training materials urging American officers to view all Muslims as potential enemies, history tends to repeat itself.

Public diplomacy is not just about providing translations of foreign media to US consumers – a free service largely discontinued by budget cuts after the Cold War. It is about shaping how Americans see the outside world. Are we comfortable with giving that mandate to outlets like the BBG overseas? Most Americans are unfamiliar with the work they abroad. I’d imagine they’d be surprised to find out how some of their programs would function in a domestic context.

Michael Hastings says that this is an effort championed by the Pentagon, even though Smith-Mundt has never officially applied to materials produced by the US Department of Defense. Yet the Pentagon could benefit from this legislation since, by making clear that Smith-Mundt only applies to State Department and BGG materials and employees, it leaves no ambiguity over whether there should be strict disclosure or oversight of similar Pentagon activities such as social media monitoring.

Secretary of State Clinton said in 2011 that the US was “losing” the “information war” around the world and there were no American outlets that could compete with Russia Today (whose parent company owned by the Russian government), CCTV (state-run Chinese television) or Al-Jazeera (formerly owned by a member of Qatar’s royal family). Indeed, one of the key arguments of the bill’s proponents is that if Jihadist media is freely broadcast into the US by foreign outlets, then our government should be able to “counter” it at home. The bill would therefore, according to this view, finally bring together all State Department offices together in a unified media effort.

But Clinton sold the federal government short when she said the US was “losing” the “information war.” Not just because VOA media can be viewed freely online here via YouTube, but through privately-owned American news media, especially television news broadcasters, which rely on a constant stream of government “exclusives” to help drive their twenty-four hour a day programming cycle. Does anyone really believe that in the day and age of Cabinet members’ regular Sunday morning talk show appearances, MSNBC exclusives with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired generals appearing on CNN as “defense analysts,” and almost constant leaks from the White House that the US government is somehow censoring itself?

One of most stated reasons for enacting Smith-Mundt, when it was being debated after WWII, was that Congress could not trust the State Department to not abuse its new mandate, to not ape the agitprop of our new Soviet foe, or the defeated Nazis. This was, in large part, a debate stoked by the Red Scare, when Communists were wrongly through to be secretly controlling the State Department. But for some of the wrong reasons, the authors of the legislation clearly had reasonable concerns: should government, specifically, one agency whose top people could change every four years, be practicing journalism and calling it “public diplomacy”? How would we ensure that we didn’t cross the lines dictatorships did every day with their “public information services”?

In 2009, the Media and Outreach Coordinator for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs warned readers of the UNC American Diplomacy blog that if we “tear down that firewall,” “it will be a matter of time before resources and personnel … are diverted in favor of domestic ‘public affairs,’ the short-term political imperative of any administration.” And this week, the nonprofit Committee for US International Broadcasting released a letter arguing that “the Smith-Mundt Act modifications lack protections against abuse.” The directors of the group, including a former VOA director, Ted Lipien, fear that the bill poses “a real danger that they [the BBG] will take advantage of this law, if it passes, to divert public money from critical news and information projects in countries lacking free and balanced media to use for their own domestic PR projects and on themselves.” In other words, the primary purpose of the State Department’s “public diplomacy” arm – to influence audiences abroad – could be diluted by partisanship at home.

As a Cold War-era saying about the two leading Soviet news outlets, Pravda (“The Truth”) and Izvestia (“News”) went, “there is no news in the truth, and there is no truth in the news.”

Yet, according to critics of the US-led war in Afghanistan, the American military is already carrying out a disinformation campaign targeting US and European public opinion. Congress just voted down a withdrawal bill from Afghanistan, despite an all-time low in public support for the war in the US. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act’s Republican co-sponsor, Mac Thornberry of Texas, was one of 303 legislators who voted against this withdrawal bill. He told the Associated Press that “if we leave too early and the Taliban and al-Qaida return, more Americans will suffer,” yet failed to specify when it would no longer be “too early” for us to leave. As it stands, the NDAA the bill was attached to calls for at least 68,000 US troops to remain in Afghanistan through 2014.

Reportedly, some of the opposition to the new bill is coming from within the Pentagon. But then, the bill’s advocacy has been strongest that department, which is why UC Irvine historian, and Heavy Metal Islam author Mark LeVine commented:

“I don’t know what’s worse, the fact the military has just successfully had an amendment attached to the defense appropriation bill (passed the House today) that removes the prohibitions on using propaganda and psy-ops operations on the [A]merican public or the fact that in reality they’ve already been deploying psy-ops and propaganda on the [A]merican people without anyone noticing for over a decade.”

Army whistleblower Lt. Colonel Daniel L. Davis has written in the Armed Forces Journal that the US military has been consistently underreporting Taliban successes in Afghanistan in order to influence US and European public opinion (the French, for their part, are no longer buying it and with President Hollande’s election have announced their withdrawal). Davis noted that in his interviews with Army “Information Operations” experts, some were deeply concerned with “protect[ing] a key friendly center of gravity, to wit US national will.”

This is what “public diplomacy” aims to achieve in Afghanistan: prolonging our presence in that country by insulating the global public from the situation on the ground. It not so simple as countering anti-American al-Qaeda propaganda on the Internet. And it certainly isn’t going to fool the people Lt. Colonel Davis interviewed.

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