First, a number of commenters argued that I gave too much credit to McCain's public diplomacy initiatives. For one example, Donna Marie Oglesby, counseler for USIA in the Clinton Administration, argued that "McCain appears less interested in public diplomacy than in what we used to call advocacy and is now called strategic communication. His interest is in the “war of ideas” and advancing American objectives in the global information battle-space." That's probably true, though I thought that my point about his overly-militarized understanding of the problem captured many of the points raised. But whether or not his ideas are any good, it's undeniable that his Foreign Affairs essay (if not his more recent campaign speeches) had a fairly lengthy discussion of the problem - which Clinton's did not. I think it's fair to expect that I'll be giving more scrutiny to McCain's ideas come summer, should I still have a stake in the outcome.
Second, and much more substantive, Matt Armstrong has offered a powerful and pointed case for the abolition of the Smith-Mundt ban on the domestic dissemination of propaganda designed for foreign audiences. Here's a taste of his critique:
First and foremost, we must revisit and discuss the purpose and intent of the prohibitions of Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Debated and enacted to improve the quality of our responses to adversarial propaganda during the communications revolution of the 1940s, it was based on the communications market of the time. It is now invoked to prevent any potential communication that might possibly be heard or seen by Americans. This fear of being overheard in America has done more to neuter U.S. responses and to encourage the creation of new information functions than anything else. We have created an information architecture that cares more about how a broadcast, flyer, or message will play in Iowa than in the primary center of gravity of the fight: the minds of the support base of our adversary. The result is timid responses and artificial self-containment out of touch with the virtual geography of today’s psychological landscape.
Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics, or DIME – were retooled to meet an emerging threat with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Then as it is today, the U.S. was engaged in a war of ideas and perceptions both globally and domestically, however the importance and impact of Smith-Mundt is ignored despite its influence, often negative, on every aspect of America’s informational arsenal.
This year the Defense Department will look into how the National Security Act of 1947 should be modified to adapt to 21st Century conflict. The candidates should be bold and argue for a more holistic self-analysis.
Our information systems suffer from inflexibility and internal resistance rooted in a misunderstanding of Smith-Mundt that requires updating to conform to a reality that makes separating audiences by geography both impractical and undesirable. This will not be a conflict over hearts and passions, but a psychological struggle over minds and wills. We must stop telling foreign publics what we want our own people to hear. Unless we get our information house in order, the United States will remain virtually unarmed in the battles that shape our future.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Armstrong's enthusiasm to improve the quality of American international information operations somewhat clouds his recognition of the basic point that the ban on domestic dissemination is there for a reason. I admit to finding it somewhat alarming when a leading public diplomacy guy in the current administration tried at some length to convince me that Smith-Mundt didn't legally apply to DoD efforts at all. I'm no lawyer, nor a bureaucrat, so I have no idea if he's right - but the principles behind Smith-Mundt, of protecting the American democratic system from manipulation by the military or intelligence agencies, seem to me to be far more important.
The temptation to manipulate American public opinion has always been there, and has only grown more potent in an age where counter-insurgency practitioners and "Long War" planners openly view the American domestic arena as a vital strategic arena. I'd go so far as to suggest that a not-insignificant portion of General Petraeus's information operations efforts have been directed towards shaping American public discourse. It isn't an accident that he has been so available to so many journalists, or that the flow of "good news" about the Anbar Awakening and the surge into the American media has expanded so dramatically. And why wouldn't he, when at the heart of the new counter-insurgency doctrine lies the recognition that maintaining domestic public support for a long, drawn-out military presence is one of the most important single factors?
Recognizing this reality could draw one of two responses. The first is to recoil in horror and attempt to strengthen, broaden and enforce Smith-Mundt's principles. This position would focus on the dangers to American democracy posed by the military or intelligence agencies manipulating information and disseminating propaganda. The impulse to get this under control is exceptionally strong, and well-justified. This is particularly the case with propaganda which falls clearly into the realm of the political, conventionally defined: selective release of information intended to make the current President look good (or bad). It's less obvious, but in some ways more important when the propaganda is conceived of as part of the war effort itself, and building domestic public support is incorporated into the military's mission. This should worry everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, since it erodes some fairly core commitments and assumptions underpinning our democracy.
At the same time, I've become somewhat fatalistic about the ability to actually control this or to enforce Smith-Mundt's principles in any serious fashion. Preventing the domestic reception of propaganda released abroad is simply impossible given the globalization of the media and the incredibly fast movement of information from one public to another, from one language to another, from one media form to another. Suppose, in a purely hypothetical example, that the US military does some PsyOp work in the field in Iraq to persuade Iraqis of the brutality of al-Qaeda and the nobility of the Awakenings rising up against it: say, that AQI used a pregnant woman as a suicide bomber. Even if the intention was purely local, meant only for Iraqi consumption, and that the US forces did everything in their power to prevent its dissemination in the US (both unlikely assumptions), the odds that this story would filter through a local stringer into the American media are overwhelming. It would be discussed in one of the forums or picked up in an Iraqi newspaper or Iraqi government outlets, and almost immediately translated and disseminated through the English-language distribution chain - and if the mainstream media didn't immediately bite, blogs would quickly fill the gap.
I honestly don't know what to do about all of this. Smith-Mundt's principles are important, but both current practice and the realities of the information age make it nearly impossible to realize them. Once again, constructive commentary - on either my thoughts or Armstrong's - very much encouraged!