All Ambiguity and No Strategy

by Bud Goodall

Andrew Garfield, writing in the fall issue of The Middle East Journal, points out a major challenge facing the next President of the United States as well as members of the new Congress:

Washington should make a compelling case to the American public that information operations are indispensable tools. Whether the public agrees or disagrees with the Iraq war, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi public is vital to achieving peace. A successful strategy will not only counter enemy propaganda but also seize and hold the information initiative.

Garfield is not alone in his observation that the need to win the so-called “hearts and minds” of world opinion has been seriously lacking in the rhetoric coming from Washington. Thomas Friedman, writing an op-ed in The New York Times under the title “Swift-Boated by Bin Laden,” asks:

How could the Bush team Swift-boat John Kerry and Max Cleland — authentic Vietnam war heroes, whom the White House turned into surrendering pacifists in the war on terror — but never manage to Swift-boat Osama bin Laden, a genocidal monster, who today is still regarded in many quarters as the vanguard of anti-American ‘resistance.

Both of these writers make the point that what America lacks is a clear campaign strategy for reversing the dismal status of the U. S. at home and abroad. Given the stakes on the global political and economic stage, this question may well be the most important one to ask potential Presidents, yet thus far the lukewarm posturing evident from candidates of both parties has not ventured into the area that will likely define the success of U. S. foreign policies, economic initiatives, and peace prospects for the coming years.

Amy Zalman posts a terrorism blog that includes statements made by the Presidential candidates on the subject of terrorism, homeland security, and the Iraq War. While all of the candidates claim to have a “plan” to deal with the global war on terror, they talk in abstractions. Senator Joe Biden asserts the need to win the war of ideas, but he offers no plan. Likewise, Hillary Clinton, according to Zalman in November before the Council on Foreign Relations, indicated that:

T]he United States [needs] to take an actively internationalist, rather than isolationist stance… Clinton has argued that in order to win the war on terrorism, a concerted effort to prepare the entire country for interactions with foreign cultures must be made.

But she offers no plan. On the Republican side of the campaign, we hear the sentiments of Rudy Guiliani, to the effect that “national determination and will to continue the war on terrorism” are essential. Mitt Romney says:

The defeat of this radical and violent faction of Islam must be achieved through a combination of American resolve, international effort, and the rejection of violence by moderate, modern, mainstream Muslims… America must help lead a broad-based international coalition that promotes secular education, modern financial and economic policies, international trade, and human rights.

But he offers no plan.

Principles

It is clear from this brief look at candidate statements that broad policies and heartfelt sentiments have taken the place of an actual plan. The communication principle that defines the “absence of a presence” of a clear plan is that old politician’s friend, ambiguity as strategy. Ambiguity in this sense refers to messages that are intentionally indirect, vague, and unclear.

As has been demonstrated by Eisenberg (2007), ambiguity is not necessarily a bad strategy. In fact, the strategic use of ambiguous messages in corporate mission statements – like campaign platforms – can empower local interpretations of its meaning and, as a result, promote unified diversity. It can also facilitate organizational change through the development of new relationships among organizational stakeholders (or voters). And, ambiguity provides opportunities for credible senders (such as government and military spokespersons) to engage successfully in plausible deniability.

There is an important distinction, though, between using ambiguity to empower the interpretation of messages (which is a good thing in the conduct of public diplomacy and counter-terrorism), and hiding behind vague statements or sentimental notions rather than providing a strategic communication plan for winning the hearts and minds of the world. What is needed from the Presidential candidates is a move away from ambiguity on this issue.

Analysis

It might be helpful to examine what a possible plan might look like. In a forthcoming volume, strategic communication scholars Steve Corman, Angela Trethewey, and myself provide a blueprint for a new strategic communication policy that applies current communication theorizing to the struggle against violent extremism:

[The] policy would be far less concerned with controlling and reinforcing a core message about U. S. values (e.g., democracy) than with using the creativity and openness of those values to perturb violent extremists and their audiences… This new strategic communication policy would be less occupied with staying on message and repeating it, than with creating opportunities for diverse and even conflicting homegrown narratives that create doubt about the credibility of violent extremists’ promises and unwavering trust in what they represent as “truth.” In so doing, the new policy would create networked space to empower local meanings capable of enabling homegrown change. Finally, it would be a policy that takes full advantage of contemporary communication understandings that recognize that meanings are in social networks, not in words.

In the book, we recommend that the United States develop clear communication plans around a new set of assumptions. Given that the current crop of presidential candidates is asking to take charge of the system, we should expect to hear some clear proposals from them instead of the ambiguous generalities we are getting. For example:

  • It is uncontroversial that we should rebuild partnerships as Biden proposes. The problem is that we have no credibility left on which to rebuild such a foundation. What is the plan for recovering our lost credibility?
  • It’s all well and good to suggest that we should be internationalist, as Clinton does. But we currently present ourselves to the world—as a matter of policy—as “partners” for a better life. How do we reconcile this internationalist message with our willingness to act unilaterally when it is in our interests?
  • Romney can say that we’re going to promote secular education, modern financial and economic policies, international trade, and human rights. But we’re doing that now and it’s not working. How do we persuade people to support these goals when they don’t necessarily accept the values that underlie them?

American voters, especially those of us working in the counter-terrorism and public diplomacy fields, need substantive answers from candidates about how they plan to repair our broken strategic communication efforts. So far it’s all ambiguity and no strategy.

Further Reading

  • Eisenberg, E. M. (2007). Strategic Ambiguities: Essays on Communication, Organization, and Identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Corman, S. R., Trethewey, A., & Goodall, B. (2008). Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communication in the Struggle Against Violent Extremism. New York: Peter Lang.