Mullen's Strategic Communication

Admiral Michael Mullen's "From the Chairman" essay in the new issue of Joint Force Quarterly has received some attention in public diplomacy and military ciricles. Mullen throws a bucket of ice water on the strategic communications "cottage industry", stating bluntly that "I don't care for the term." There's a lot to like in his essay, but also several blind spots which are worth thinking about a bit.  

Mullen's essay received early attention for his clear statement that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate." Actions, not words, should be the primary concern he recognizes -- with particular attention to gaps between what we say and what we do. While this is stated bluntly and refreshingly, it's far from novel. Almost every report on public diplomacy over the last decade -- and there have been dozens -- have said the same thing. Deeds matter more than words, beware the "say-do" gap, credibility matters, it's the policy stupid -- these are cliches of the public diplomacy/strategic communications field, not new insights, no matter how many times they are forgotten to be repeated anew.

One of Mullen's most important positive claims is his repudiation of a "strategic" (in the Habermasian sense) approach to communications, where messages are crafted to manipulate targets seen as objects rather than subjects:

"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. Good communication runs both ways. It's not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners... We can not capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them."

Again, the message here is crucial but the novelty is limited. Many essays and reports on public diplomacy over the last decade have made similar points about conceiving of strategic communications as a "conversation". His intervention only makes sense in the context of a bureaucratic military culture which has grown up around the strategic communications industry. And here, I see exactly where he's coming from. I've seen enough of these power point presentations, flow charts, and jargon-ridden policy documents to last me several lifetimes. Its one of the reasons why so many people have worried about the - likely unintended - consequences of the vast imbalance of resources between the Pentagon and the State Department. (For a first response from that community, see this guest post over at Matt Armstrong's place.)

But where I fear he may go wrong -- or perhaps be misinterpreted -- is in his assertion that the essence of good communication is "having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for ourselves." Because nothing speaks for itself -- certainly not in the kinds of hotly contested political zones where the Pentagon should be involved. Everything is subject to spin, framing, and interpretation. Mullen is right to critique those who focus exclusively on the messaging and ignore the policy. But it doesn't follow that just getting the policy right will succeed without an effective communications strategy. There is going to be an information war, a struggle over framing and interpretation, no matter what policy is pursued. This is why strategic communications can't be ignored in the formation and execution of policy in today's international system.

Policy and strategic communications need to be deeply integrated, with feedback mechanisms, anticipation of the likely response of both partners and adversaries, and deep understanding of the relevant others. Mullen, to his credit, recognizes that "we must know the context within which our actions will be received and understood" -- which should point to more, rather than less, investment in cultural understanding, linguistic expertise, and deep engagement with other societies. I suspect that Mullen would agree, but his essay could be read by others to challenge the value of such investments.

Finally, even as Mullen attacks the "certain arrogance to our 'strat comm' efforts," he reproduces a typically American "certain arrogance" of assuming that American policy is in fact based on "the right intent." But "having the right intent up front" is a deeply political question, not simply a matter of being good, righteous people. Was the invasion of Iraq based on the "right intent up front"? That obviously can't be answered from on high -- it's a political judgement. Is America's role in Afghanistan now based on "the right intent up front"? Lots of Afghans and Pakistanis don't seem to think so. Who is to judge when the intent is "right"? Us? Them? Not as easy as it sounds.

Kudos to Admiral Mullen to opening up this debate -- people in the new administration have been thinking about all of these issues, and it will be very interesting to see what emerges.

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.