December 05, 2007

Gates&Rumsfield, Blame the propaganda, not the Pentagon

Gates and Rumsfeld: Blame the Propaganda, not the Pentagon

Gates and Rumsfeld: Blame the Propaganda, not the Pentagon

John Brown

The two Secretaries of Defense of the Bush administration—the current one, Robert Gates, and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld—have undertaken a campaign to convince the public that it’s the lack of civilian US overseas propaganda, and not the Pentagon’s support of the president’s foreign policy, that has led to America’s difficulties—to put it mildly—overseas.

Essentially, they’re telling us there’s nothing wrong with the Bush foreign policy or its implementation by the military; the problem is how we’ve tried to sell the policy.

Gates made this blame-the-propaganda pitch in a speech

at Kansas State University and Rumsfeld in a recent article

in the Washington Post. Of course, given Americans’ traditional dislike of propaganda, neither Gates nor Rumsfeld mention the p-word with respect to the United States. Rather, they use what for them are euphemisms for the term: “soft power” and “public diplomacy.”

But there’s little doubt these Bushmen, no matter how wrongly, interpret “soft power” and “public diplomacy”—which they think have not sufficiently supported Mr. Bush’s policies—in an essentially propagandistic fashion: that is, as methods of persuasion aimed at changing the behavior or attitudes of target audiences overseas in ways the two Pentagon chiefs perceive as favorable to the United States.

In Gates’ words, “[s]uccess will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior—of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.”

A major failure of US propaganda is that it has failed to counter jihadist propaganda, according to Rumsfeld/Gates. “It is just plain embarrassing,” says Gates, “that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the internet than America. As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’”

(Here Gates evidently gets the nationality of the author he cites wrong. It is former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke who wrote

n October 2001: “Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or—if you really want to be blunt—propaganda. But whatever it is called, defining what this war is really about in the minds of the 1 billion Muslims in the world will be of decisive and historic importance. … How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?” )

To sweeten the pill they want the American people to swallow—our Pentagon-supported Bush policy is fine, despite our propaganda’s failures—Rumsfeld and Gates argue that the military can’t do it all alone, in part because its priority is not propaganda. They agree more of what the Pentagon does should indeed be left up to specialized civilian agencies, including, Rumsfeld emphasizes, international ones. Gates goes so far as to advocate more funding for Foggy Bottom (something, however, of a slap at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, suggesting as it does that by herself she is incapable of getting enough money and resources for the agency she leads).

Give Rumsfeld (and especially Gates)

credit for pointing out that the Pentagon is not all-powerful and that, if a war must be fought, it is more than just about killing people. But they should face up to the fact that it is the misguided Pentagon-supported Bush foreign policy—and not just the administration’s impropaganda, misdirected by the hapless Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs—that has led us into the mess we are in overseas.

What is needed are major policy changes, based on the essential notion that America must respect the rest of the world if it expects the rest of the world to respect it in return. That, and not more propaganda, is what’s needed for US policies overseas to be credible and effective.

John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles the “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review”

available free by requesting it at

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