More on Pentagon ‘News’ Web Sites

The USA Today story which Judah flagged below concerns a Pentagon program that I had mentioned previously on this blog hearing about in an off-the-record conversation with a government contractor.

In my previous post, I mentioned that focusing our information operations efforts on making our enemies look bad (targeting Muslim extremists for ridicule in ways that drives a wedge between them and Muslim moderates, for example) would be a more efficient and effective approach than focusing on bolstering the U.S. image.

This goes double for the Pentagon. While an information operations campaign aimed at demoralizing and dividing U.S. enemies is within DOD’s job description, the kind of public diplomacy campaign described in the USA Today piece, as Judah notes, is not. And there’s ample reason to believe the Pentagon won’t be any good at it.

First of all, without the trust of your audience, a (non-covert) campaign aimed at countering misinformation is bound to be ineffective, since audience bias toward the source can give it less reason to believe the debunking than the original misinformation.

Secondly, the United States already has a number of news-based public diplomacy programs aimed at foreign audiences: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa, Al Hurra, etc. RFE/RL is already in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is trusted there.

There are two basic types of U.S. broadcasting, of which VOA and RFE/RL are the most prominent examples of each. VOA, as RFE/RL chief Jeffrey Gedmin put it in a talk he gave at CSIS earlier this year, “has always been about us, about America, about American foreign policies.” That is, VOA focuses on giving the world a truer picture of America than they might get through state-controlled or other media in their home countries. RFE/RL, Al-Hurra, Radio Free Asia, and others, by contrast are “surrogate” broadcasting. They aren’t aimed at overtly promoting America, but simply at providing a surrogate free press where none exists, thereby exposing those who live in non-free societies to a very important institution of democracy.

Now both are not easy to do effectively, and the VOA mission is by definition the more difficult one to accomplish where an audience is already suspicious of American aims. A hybrid of the two — something that appears on its face like a surrogate operation, but is really aimed at promoting specific U.S. interests (as opposed to the general interest of a free press), would seem to be the most difficult mission of all. As described in the USA Today piece, the Pentagon program seems to be exactly this kind of hybrid.

That’s going to be a very difficult nut to crack, especially for a Pentagon that has no experience in this kind of thing, and whose track record even in relating to the press in the United States is less than stellar. if the aim is to influence foreign media without leaving American footrpints, the money might be better spent in the CIA budget, to fund a covert program. Or, if we’re going to be open about it, why not give the money to VOA or RFE/RL?

The USA Today story cites no funding numbers. I would be very curious to see how much the Pentagon plans to spend on this. As Gedmin pointed out at CSIS, the budget for all of U.S. broadcasting is $700 million — less than 1/500 of the total DOD budget, or the price of about two Apache helicopters. You don’t have to be a pacifist to wonder if some of that DOD money might be better spent on U.S. broadcasting, especially when the Pentagon is proposing to expand its reach into missions that existing agencies are already receiving insufficient funding to perform.

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