A little-noticed discussion in Washington has recently hit fever pitch as members of the U.S. government debate how to turn their ambition -- to win the hearts and minds of the global public -- into action. At issue is how best the United States, now led by an administration promising to re-engage with the world through initiatives like Barack Obama's high-profile speech to Muslims in Cairo, can get its message across to enemies, skeptics, would-be allies, and even close friends.
A previously undisclosed program intended to counter extremist ideology in West Africa's predominantly Muslim Sahel region, details of which have been described to Foreign Policy, offers a window into how this Washington debate is playing out inside the beltway and on the ground. The quarter-million-dollar "Regional Marketing Campaign," as laid out in a draft Performance Work Statement (PWS) -- a document outlining the government's requirements and expectations for a given project -- will enlist a private contractor under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the public-diplomacy shop in the State Department's Africa Bureau, and individual embassies in four West African countries. Among its strategies will be using certain "advertising vehicles," such as mosquito nets and water bottles, without explicitly disclosing that they are coming from the U.S. government. The aim of the program is to encourage a local national identity of peace, thereby portraying extremism as a trait "inconsistent" with "the character of the population," according to the document.
The broad debate about such programs puts three hot issues on the table: how the message should be carried (whether clandestine or not), who can and should do the work (civilians or the military), and how to fund those activities (explicitly from Congress, or discretionally through broader programs). Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined the debate last week as he delivered an unusually blunt critique of the U.S. government's "strategic communication" efforts in Joint Force Quarterly, a government publication.
"Frankly, I don't care for the term," he writes. Mullen argues that the most powerful communication tools are not words or ad campaigns but deeds. "We've come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not."
Meanwhile, the House Committee on Appropriations' subcommittee on defense has upped the ante further by slashing in half the Department of Defense's requested budget for information operations, a major military component of strategic communication.
But strategic communication, a blanket term for a plethora of efforts to engage audiences and promote U.S. interests, including through public diplomacy, are unlikely to go anywhere soon. "Actions speak louder than words, but words are still necessary to explain those actions and our reasons for them," a spokesperson for Africom told FP. The start date for the Sahel contract is indicated as Sept. 1, 2009, with January 2010 named as the campaign's operational launch. On Sept. 1, a spokesman for Africom confirmed the existence of the project.
Under the early years of George W. Bush, critics of the former president's administration say, overtly pro-American messages delivered by U.S. officials had little effect, or even backfired. By contrast, this campaign is meant to place "the emphasis of message delivery on internal voices," the PWS states. A source familiar with the project told FP that the project may work with local governments to frame the campaign, representing the local government as the origin of the message, rather than the U.S. government. "An internally produced message, synchronized with a parallel U.S.-faced influencing effort, is an encompassing strategy aimed at reaching a wide spectrum of the population," according to the PWS.
That will mean the use of "novelty items, events, public statements, and more" to convey the message. Television, radio, and billboards are all cited as primary mediums. Other "country-specific advertising vehicles," including mosquito bed nets and water bottles, are mentioned in the draft PWS, as well. Another source within the State Department told FP that such items might not be disclosed as coming from the U.S. government. (Asked about that, Africom replied: "Although we do not highlight our support, we disclose our involvement freely.")
The Sahel program is reminiscent of a controversy first brought to light when the Lincoln Group, a private public relations firm, was reported in late 2005 to have been producing pro-American press coverage in the Iraqi media on behalf of the U.S. military. Many in the defense community argued that these sorts of information operations, carried out through local "voices" rather than explicitly foreign ones, were precisely what was needed to marginalize extremists. "This project is not about the U.S. government, it is about sending a message of peace and tolerance to the people of these nations that our U.S. ambassadors and Department of State believe is important," the Africom spokesman told FP, referring to the Sahel project.