Do We Need A New War-of-Ideas Dept?

by Steven R. Corman

As reported yesterday by Sharon Weinberger at Danger Room, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has resurfaced on the lecture circuit, calling for the (re-?) creation of (something kinda-sorta like) the old USIA (but not really):

We need someone in the United States government, some entity, not like the old USIA . . . I think this agency, a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, pods blogs are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities.

she quotes Rumsfeld as saying.

As her update notes, the post set off a small flurry of commentary in the public-diplomasphere. Most posters joined Weinberger in lamenting the return of the former SecDef (whose name translates as “kaboom field,” a source of unending hilarity for my friends in Germany) to the Public Conversation. Spencer Ackerman is circumspect:

Rumsfeld manage[d] to be the first secretary of defense in history not just to botch two wars, but to botch two wars simultaneously. For that, no one should ever listen to this man ever again. Whatever he says is discredited by the sheer fact that he’s the one saying it. He should be legally obligated to end of all his sentences with, “…but, on the other hand, I’m a total jackass.”

Matt Armstrong over at Mountainrunner was the contrarian. He criticized Weinberger for equating the idea with its messenger. While his by-now heavily redacted post has backtracked on the critical tone toward Weinberger, he is sticking to his guns:

[Rumsfeld] says it wrong and has credibility issues, which is Sharon’s keypoint. My keypoint is don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater just because he touched it.

At the risk of occupying the wishy-washy middle, I’d say there is something to agree with on both sides of this debate.

Ad hominems against Rumsfeld aside, Weinberger and the others are right to be suspicious of his concept. He decries the dismantling of the USIA, saying that we “lost a valued tool to help tell the story of a nation that was carved from the wilderness and conceived in freedom.” What we lack today, says Rumsfeld, is a “personnel organization” that can “deploy” people who can competently message for America.

But the problem is not that we are failing to insert our talking points into the Internet tubes and “pods” often enough. The problem is our meta-message: “Do as we say, not as we do.” We have people in our existing strategic communication establishment who have figured this out. For instance Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Michael Doran defines strategic communication as “syncing our messaging with our actions, so our actions reinforce our words.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen says this too, and adds that we need to talk less and listen more. Three cheers for them!

Rumsfeld offers us a bureaucratic fix for what is really a conceptual problem. Creating the Homeland Security Department (a plan he presumably helped hatch) has mostly compounded the management gridlock it was supposed to solve. In the same way, creating a War-of-Ideas Department without a fundamental change in communication strategy will only amplify our shortcomings, helping us say the same wrong things, only louder.

Rumsfeld is also off the mark in his assessment of what we lost with the USIA. We didn’t lose a “tool,” we lost an approach. I have talked to many refugees from the USIA, and their common lament is the demise of a field driven approach to strategic communication. In the good ol’ days, USIA diplomats on the ground–who had knowledge of and contact with local people and circumstances–decided how strategic messages would be delivered. After the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, these functions were absorbed into the State Department. Local finesse was supplanted with centrally devised and tightly controlled talking points delivered via an Echo Chamber.

This is where I think Matt Armstrong is right to say “not so fast.” A new organization could present an opportunity to go back to the future, especially if it could be done while there are people still around who remember how things used to be done. Such an effort would of course have to be updated to account for the new communication realities of this millenium. But if we were to combine the old-fashioned field-driven approach with a new commitment to listening and alignment of words with actions, then practice this using the old and new media, we might once again have reason to be optimistic about our prospects in the “war of ideas.”

UPDATE (1/25):   Today I received a private communication from Sharon Weinberger noting a correction she made on her original post on this subject.  She had quoted Rumsfeld as referring to “pods” as part of what is available on the Internet.  She said “someone with a high-quality recording sent me an excerpt, noting word he used was actually ‘blogs.'”  I have, in turn, made the appropriate corrections in this post.