Strategic Communication

By Halloran, Richard | Parameters, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Strategic Communication


Halloran, Richard, Parameters


The late Colonel Harry Summers liked to tell tale a familiar to many who served in Vietnam. In April 1975, after the war was over, the colonel was in a delegation dispatched to Hanoi. In the airport, he got into a conversation with a North Vietnamese colonel named Tu who spoke some English and, as soldiers do, they began to talk shop. After a while, Colonel Summers said: "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield." Colonel Tu thought about that for a minute, then replied: "That may be so. But it is also irrelevant." (1)

If that conversation were to be held in today's vocabulary, it would go something like this. Colonel Summers: "You know, you never defeated us in a kinetic engagement on the battlefield." Colonel Tu: "That may be so. It is also irrelevant because we won the battle of strategic communication--and therefore the war."

On a contemporary note, a US officer returning from Iraq said privately: "We plan kinetic campaigns and maybe consider adding a public affairs annex. Our adversaries plan information campaigns that exploit kinetic events, especially spectacular attacks and martyrdom operations. We aren't even on the playing field, but al Qaeda seeks to dominate it because they know their war will be won by ideas."

For five years, Americans have been struggling to comprehend strategic communication as they have seen the standing of the nation plummet around the world and political support at home evaporate for the war in Iraq. They have lamented the seeming failure of their government to persuade the Islamic world of America's good intentions while Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda operate in the best fashion of Madison Avenue. A perceptive Singaporean diplomat and scholar, Kishore Mahbubani, was asked two years ago what puzzled him about America's competition with Osama bin Laden. Mahbubani replied:

"How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world's greatest communication society?" (2)

Communication Campaigns

The White House, Defense Department, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and other agencies in Washington have floundered in trying to organize a strategic communication campaign. The White House formed the Office of Global Communications in 2003, but it never really took hold and soon faded into the background as a minor office within the national security staff. President George W. Bush appointed a close adviser, Karen P. Hughes, to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 2005 but she has proven to be less than effective. Among the latest efforts is the Counterterrorism Communication Center (CTCC), set up in April 2007. In a memo, the CTCC says it "is an interagency office, housed within the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. The center was set up to provide leadership and coordination for interagency efforts in the war of ideas, and to integrate and enhance the US government's diverse public diplomacy counterterrorism efforts." (3)

Moreover, the nation's political and military leaders have yet to agree on what they mean by strategic communication. If five government people were put in a room and told to come up with a definition, eight different answers would come out. The definitions that have been drawn up are mostly bureaucratic gibberish. One, for example, reads: "Focused United States government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power." (4)

Maybe that sentence answers Ambassador Mahbubani's question because it is 50 words long, and any primer on good writing would say that is 25 words too many.

There should be no great mystery about what strategic communication is nor an unnecessarily complicated definition of it.

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