The Washington Post reports today that the Defense Department "will pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to "engage and inspire" the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government." In contrast to earlier efforts, where there was supposedly always a "produced by MNF-I" label, these efforts explicitly will not have such attribution. As one official explains, "They don't know that the originator of the content is the U.S. government. If they did, they would never run anything."
These sorts of efforts exemplify all of the problems with strategic communications vs public diplomacy at which I hinted on Tuesday. It's easy to see why eager information warriors think that paying for positive press makes sense in pursuit of tactical advantage in the strategic propaganda war. It gets the "messaging" out with greater credibility, it "counters" the adversaries efforts, and it might shift some perceptions in the short term. Even at this level, the strategy is deeply flawed. When the payments are exposed, as they inevitably are in today's global media environment (for example, with page one stories in the Washington Post), they then discredit not only the specific messages but also every other pro-U.S. message which will quite reasonably then be dismissed as "paid for by the United States." At our panel this week, Mike Doran and others suggested that the key to success in the "war of ideas" is building up credible third party messengers. Nothing could be more devastating to the credibility of third party messengers than this kind of program.
At a deeper level, these efforts fatally compromise the long-term objective of building free, credible and independent media as the foundation of a democratic system. I've argued many times that support for free and independent media should be at the center of all efforts to promote reform in the region. Only a free and independent media can provide the flow of information, the transparency and demands for accountability, and the open contestation of political ideas necessary for real political pluralism and democracy. Turning the media into a tool for spreading propaganda compromises not only the very media which we should be promoting but also our own credibility in arguing for a free and independent media.
The other obvious point is that current "war of ideas" and COIN thinking explicity considers U.S. public opinion an important domain of information warfare. The Post quotes from the contract solicitation this passage which should be deeply disturbing: one goal is to "communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (i.e. Iraqi, pan-Arabic, International, and U.S. audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of [U.S. and Iraqi government] core themes and messages." Presenting American audiences as a key target for manipulation through the covert dissemination of propaganda messages should be seen as scandalous, subversive of democracy, and illegal. Let's hope this story finally gets some attention to trends I've been tracking for years.