Forget Lipstick on a Pig, Make Jihadists Look Still Uglier

As a follow-on to Judah’s post about U.S. information operations and public diplomacy, particularly his discussion of the difficulty of making U.S. foreign policy, or the United States in general, look swell to an audience that to a certain extent is pre-disposed to oppose it, I wanted to flag again something I linked to back in January: this Washington Post op-ed by Gary Anderson. Anderson has some interesting advice for how to deal with the “lipstick on a pig” phenomenon, as Judah calls it. Essentially, he says, we should forget about charm campaigns focused on bolstering the U.S. image and instead focus exclusively on the much more immediately consequential objective of driving a wedge between extremists (narrowly defined) and moderates in the Muslim world. Here’s an excerpt.

. . . Our message isn’t selling. We can’t change what we are, nor would we want to. No matter how much the government may disapprove, the government’s official propaganda will be overwhelmed by the deluge, both positive and negative, from the popular media. We need to accept this fact and move on, rather than waste more millions on strategic communications “charm campaigns.”

What we can do is to expose our Islamic extremist enemies for what they are.

And as I pointed out in that original post, we can get a lot more creative about performing this second mission — and it doesn’t require telling anything but the truth.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear anyone in the U.S. government is heeding this advice. Just to take one example, I recently heard described a large DOD contract currently out for bid that involves hiring freelancers in the Muslim world and elsewhere to monitor local media for misinformation about the United States and then to write responses for a U.S. government-run network of multilingual Web sites aimed at various audiences abroad. I estimate that this effort will be quite difficult to pull off despite undoubtedly lavish funding not least because it requires finding competent speakers and writers of both English and the native language of each targeted region. And this is not to mention the question of whether the desired audience would tend to visit or trust a Web site run by the U.S. government, whether the government will be able to usefully delimit the universe of the information that merits their truth-squadding, etc.

The State Department has a fairly interesting “Identifying Misinformation” Web site that nonetheless is rarely updated, not actively marketed, and which, I would guess, few people visit, other than those who happen upon it through search engines. But at least the audience it appears to be targeting — Americans and other members of the English-speaking world who are searching for information about various anti-American conspiracy theories — might tend to be receptive to its message.