Redefining the Relationship: Reclaiming American Public Diplomacy from the US Military in Iraq

By Duggan, Sean E. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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Redefining the Relationship: Reclaiming American Public Diplomacy from the US Military in Iraq


Duggan, Sean E., The Middle East Journal


This article traces the US military's foray into public diplomacy (PD) in Iraq since 2003. The military initially assumed PD responsibilities, traditionally a civilian activity, in order to inform the Iraqi people about its wide-ranging reconstruction and development activities. But as the American occupation continued, the military's overwhelming presence throughout the country, its human and financial resources, and its organic transportation and security capabilities assured that it continued to dominate PD activities over the next eight years. As the military completes its withdrawal from Iraq, this article will outline the strengths and weakness of public diplomacy as practiced by the US military, the State Department, and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

American public diplomacy, the process by which US government representatives interact directly with foreign publics, is undergoing a profound resurgence. Perhaps in no other region of the world is this renewed policy of US engagement more readily apparent than in the greater Middle East. In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama campaigned on reinvigorating US engagement with Muslim-majority communities throughout the world and followed up on this pledge by directly addressing Egyptian students and community leaders during a major speech in Cairo in 2009. Moreover, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps more than any previous secretary, has persistently emphasized the importance of communicating directly with foreign publics through her town hall meetings and student forums in Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Yet since the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a country that poses the most challenging and important test of American engagement in the region, the American military has led public diplomacy efforts throughout the country.

Following the invasion, the US military began conducting many forms of public affairs and public diplomacy (PD) functions throughout Iraq. Military Public Affairs Officers held press conferences, engaged American and foreign journalists, organized cultural events, and highlighted the positive aspects of the United States' continued presence in Iraq, among other significant public diplomacy activities. Needless to say, these are not functions normally conducted by the US military.

As the American military completes its drawdown of forces in Iraq and transfers its wide-ranging public diplomacy efforts to civilian PD experts at US Embassy Baghdad, an examination of why the military initially came to take on public diplomacy functions in that country, why it continued to conduct this expanded role, and how the military's approach to public diplomacy differs from that of the State Department is vital to ensuring a smooth transition of PD responsibilities. As will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections, the military began taking on public diplomacy responsibilities in Iraq, its first full-scale attempt at conducting such missions, in response to a number of unique circumstances confronting the George W. Bush Administration in the wake of the 2003 US invasion.

First, the United States simply did not have a diplomatic mission to Iraq that could have taken on public diplomacy responsibilities in 2003 because the United States severed its diplomatic relations with Iraq following that country's invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990. In the absence of civilian human infrastructure that could have taken on public diplomacy and other civilian tasks, the Bush Administration turned to the US military which possessed a readily available and deployable capability to meet this crucial need.1

The military continued to conduct public diplomacy functions after the establishment of the US diplomatic mission to Iraq in July of 2004 for several reasons. First, the military began conducting a number of lines of non-traditional operations in response to the immense security, economic, and societal factors plaguing post-Saddam Husayn Iraq.

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