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."
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
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
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
"The substantive message carried by this campaign is for the
population to adopt and reflect an existence that involves peace, tolerance,
and understanding, thereby turning against violent extremist ideology," the
draft PWS reads. "[T]his campaign provides the
host nation governments a platform from which they are able to condemn acts of
violent extremists as inconsistent with these themes and the character of the
prospective contractor might find itself in a different position than the
Lincoln Group faced in Iraq -- namely, being outside a war zone and without the
same freedom not to attribute their actions to the U.S. government. In Iraq,
the Defense Department umbrella of psychological operations ("psyops"), defined as Defense Department
activities meant to influence foreign opinion abroad, allow for nonattribution
of the source. Such products would qualify as either gray or black propaganda -- defined in a 2005 Army Field
Manual pertaining to psyops as "products that conceal and/or do not identify a
source" and "products that purport to emanate from a source other than the true
But the Sahel region, which is
neither a war zone nor host to a combat troop presence, might not benefit from
such leeway without specific congressional authorization. According to the PWS, this particular
Africom operation is funded through from Operation Enduring
Freedom-Trans-Sahara, a Department of Defense initiative
begun in 2001 (and described here on Africom's
Web site) as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes the war in
Afghanistan. The program falls under Africom's $7.8 million Operation Objective
Voice program, which "strikes at the heart of
violent extremist ideology," according to Africom. Asked if the program were
designated as psychological operations (thus allowing nondisclosure of U.S.
funding), Africom replied that it was considered information operations, a
In a summer 2009 paper for the U.S. Army War College, Daniel
Silverberg and Joseph Heimann, counsel to the House Committee on Foreign
Affairs and former deputy counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
respectively, explain the legal ambiguity about what can and cannot be done.
All of Defense Department's strategic communication efforts are restricted by the "publicity
and propaganda rider" clause, which the authors say is "inserted annually in
the defense appropriation act that prohibits use of funds for publicity or
propaganda purposes that are not authorized by congress." Legal experts debate
whether and how much authorization is needed from Congress for information
recently as June, the Government Accountability Office noted, regarding
a separate Defense Department program, that the prohibition on propaganda and publicity "restricts
agency communications that are covert as to their source," but when this clause
applies is a judgment call, weighed against an agency's responsibilities and
need to explain its mission.
from the legal questions, the Sahel marketing program raises long-standing bureaucratic
fears. After the United States Information Agency was folded into the State
Department in 1999, Foggy Bottom has taken the lead on public diplomacy.
Increasingly, however, such tasks are moving into the Department of Defense, to
the concern of some observers -- many of them, naturally, in the State
In the Africa case, differences in funding levels for public diplomacy and
other sectors -- with Africom having vastly more funds at its disposal than the
Department of State -- have led to some tensions in the relationship between
military and civilian colleagues working on the continent. Speaking to FP about
the State Department's Office of the Inspector General report earlier this month, acting Inspector General
Harold W. Geisel explained, "The military deals in resources that the
State Department can only dream about, either in a pleasant dream or a
nightmare." Those differences have fueled concerns within the State
Department that foreign policy has become increasingly "militarized," with a
great deal of responsibility, funding, and coordination shifting to the
Pentagon. Indeed, in one example mentioned in that report, military teams operating
in Somalia had 20 times more money to conduct information campaigns than their State
generally about the relationship between the State Department and Africom with
regards to public diplomacy, Undersecretary Judith McHale replied to FP, "The Department of State and Africom enjoy a
strong relationship. Our shared goal is to help African nations create a
more stable environment on the continent and to enable political and economic
growth that benefits the people of Africa. Our relationship with Africom is
similar to the relationships the Department has with other regional commands.")
One former State Department official says it's a good thing
that the Defense Department is taking a more proactive role in strategic communications. "The
fact is that this is work that really needs to be done," he said. "You can
argue that it needs to be done by State [and not Defense Department]. But it is not going to
be done by State -- which means it's not going to be done." Such a concern seems
warranted following a scathing internal
report on the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, whose public
affairs shop was declared to be utterly failed and ineffective due to a lack of
coordination and poor leadership.
Not everyone agrees, however, that the Pentagon would be more effective. In
its report on defense, the House Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Sen.
John P. Murtha (D-Penn.), has cut DoD's $1 billion funding request for
information operations in fiscal year 21010 in half. "The Committee has serious concerns about not
only the significant amount of funding being spent on these programs, but more
importantly, about the Department's assumption of this mission area within its
roles and responsibilities." The report cites poor documentation, a lack of
oversight, and concerns about effectiveness, and calls for the secretary of defense
to file a report within 180 days, detailing the Pentagon's information operations programs. The
Senate Armed Services Committee raised similar concerns in June and has asked Defense Department to clarify its spending on strategic communication in its 2011 budget
The picture that emerges is one without a central organizing strategy for
outreach abroad, even as Obama has made renewed dialogue a hallmark
of his administration. "You have a situation where the enemy understands the
importance of strategic communications. You have space that enemy is now
filling and we're trying to fill it. But now, because of these attacks on DoD,
it may create a complete vacuum," allowing extremists the communications upper
hand, worries the former State Department official.
In West Africa, countries in the Sahel region have long
worried analysts as possible breeding grounds for terrorism or extremist
organizations, because of their majority Muslim populations, prevalent poverty,
and expanses of largely ungoverned geographical regions. According to the Africom spokesman, "Support for violent
extremism and actual violent extremist activities are rising at an alarming
pace throughout the Sahel. This region has been specifically targeted by the Al
Qaeda network for 'liberation'. Recently we've seen unprecedented violent
extremist organization activities in Mali and Mauritania. Violent extremist
organizations continue activities in Algeria. We saw an alarming percentage of
foreign fighters in Iraq originate from the Maghreb. The ideology that spawned
those foreign fighters continues nearly unabated."
In fact, this project is just the latest U.S. effort to
address extremism in the Sahel region. The U.S. Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism
Partnership program -- one of several ongoing military assistance programs -- for
example, trained 150 soldiers in
four Saharan countries "to enhance border capabilities against arms smuggling,
drug trafficking, and the movement of trans-national terrorists." Other
communications and outreach programs, such as sports programs and news Web sites,
have also been ongoing in the region for a number of years.
will not be determined by kinetic action. Rather, we believe that a focus on
communicating the truth, with information that clearly describes the impacts of
extremist ideology on the people offers them choices they would not otherwise
have available. Once the truth is involved in the conversation, we believe
extremist ideology will begin to lose its momentum,"
the Africom spokesman wrote.
Plans for the Sahel regional marketing campaign are set to be finalized by
today, Sept. 1, according to the timeline in the PWS, though Africom says
that the contracting action "has not yet been completed at this time." The U.S.
Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, is named as the organizing entity, working with the
embassies in Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. FP has seen a second document, a Military
Interdepartmental Purchase Request dated Aug. 7 and signed Aug. 14,
indicating that funds in the amount of $250,000 have been transferred to the
Dakar embassy. The PWS explains that the embassy in Dakar will then contract
with a private company to run the campaign. The State Department did not
reply to queries by the time of publication, three business days after FP's
Correction: This article originally described a debate over "how the message should be carried (whether clandestine or not)". The correct term is "clandestine," not "covert." Additionally, the piece stated that the State Department did reply to queries. It failed to do so. FP regrets the errors.
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