In Part One, we looked at the good news about attempts to reform the State Department to make it more expeditionary and better suited to the challenges of the current era. In this part, we'll look at a clear example of why it's going to be hard for the leadership to make those changes real.
I'm not going to give the name of the second officer we spoke to at State, because I don't believe in the Alinsky rules: 'people hurt faster than institutions.' This isn't about that guy, and I don't want anyone -- including his bosses -- to target him personally. He personally isn't the problem.
The second fellow we spoke with worked with the office of Public Diplomacy. "Public Diplomacy" is diplomacy aimed at the people of a country, rather than at the government. It is roughly what the military calls Strategic Communications, the overarching discipline that contains Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Psychological Operations.
This official from State's office of Public Diplomacy began by explaining that the Bush administration had not really supported them; he mentioned that President Obama's speech on the "three d's" had brought tears to the eyes of the diplomats attending. He said that his office had been hampered by the fact that they had inherited some people from the old United States Information Agency that hadn't really wanted to play nice with their new bosses, and hadn't worked hard to learn the new systems. Now things would get better, though, he said: The appointment of Undersecretary McHale was "the change we were waiting for."
Everything wrong with the legacy State Department is contained in his statement. First, some background.
If 9/11 made anything clear, it was that we needed to rethink how we were talking to the Muslim world. A goverment-to-government agreement with states like Saudi Arabia was one thing; but al Qaeda was ripping us up among the population of Muslim states. Its supporters had set up networks of mosques with imams who supported their message, built propaganda outfits across the Arab world and Muslim Asia, and into Europe and even Canada. We had not been adequately tracking them, and we didn't have the tools to respond to them. They could talk to that population largely unanswered.
During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency had the lead in the duty of responding to global Communist propaganda. It built a network of broadcasters worldwide, set up Fullbright scholarships, and led innumerable efforts around the world to combat Soviet propaganda. In 1999, the agency was dissolved. The broadcasting capacity it had built was turned over to a board of governors; and the public diplomacy functions of the agency were turned over to the State Department.
Following 9/11, we realized we no longer had the capacity to do what USIA did: that we couldn't respond to al Qaeda's propaganda as we had to the Communists. The CIA retasked its Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), and built it into the best open source intelligence operation I know of in existence. The Agency is all about espionage; open source intelligence wasn't really what they wanted to do. They had a bad relationship with the Bush administration, too -- remember that it was the Bush administration that stripped them of their independence, and put them under the command of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Department of Defense had a deputy directorate handling information operations out of the Pentagon. It retasked as well, creating Global Strategic Information Operations as a responsibility of the US Strategic Command, a four-star billet. These guys didn't want to do it: they were nuclear forces officers. They didn't know anything about 'information operations'! But they were given the task, and they met the duty.
USSTRATCOM runs support for these operations out of the Global Operations Center now: the one under the mountain, whose popular image is probably best captured by the movie War Games. It has funded and managed a number of efforts to understand who the key figures are in influencing the populations in various countries, and what kinds of media can be used to reach the populations even in the remote regions of the world.
So, I asked this State Department official to expand on his original comment. I'd heard that they didn't feel they got good people from USIA, and that the administration hadn't supported them as much as they'd like. What, though, had they done to reform their ability to communicate to these populations?
"The question is too broad," he replied. "Things went on," he added. "I think the appointment of Undersecretary McHale was the change we were waiting for," he repeated.
I know that there must have been good State Department officials working on these issues. I know that they were underserved by his answer, and the lack of interest in their work that it demonstrated.
Nevertheless, this is everything that frustrates about the legacy State Department. It is hidebound and resistant to change, yes. It blames others for its failures and refuses to accept responsibility, yes. It whines. 'The USIA people didn't play nice.' 'Bush didn't support us.' Well, he stripped CIA of its leadership role, and they still got the job done. USSTRATCOM was doubtless horrified when information operations got dumped in their lap, but they got it done.
Above all, this legacy culture is pushing its own politics instead of serving the interests of the nation. While troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are denied beer and racy magazines to avoid offending their Muslim hosts, the US Embassy hosted the first gay pride event in Iraq:
Change has certainly come to Baghdad. And it appears that includes the U.S. Embassy, where they are holding what the invitation says is the first-ever U.S. Embassy Gay Pride Theme Party next Friday at Baghdaddy's, which is the embassy employee association's pub.
Whatever your opinions on gay pride, can we agree that they are best kept out of our diplomacy to Muslim nations? Can we agree that, if 21-year-old soldiers can afford to live without a pub in the interest of furthering our nation's policy, highly-paid professional diplomats can suck up the sacrifice too?
The State Department's office of Public Diplomacy was given the leadership on the issue of counterpropaganda when it was asked to absorb the remnant of the USIA. This was their duty. I'm sorry if they didn't get the support they wanted. I'm sorry if they didn't like the Bush administration -- a lot of people didn't. That's OK.
None of that authorized them to "wait for a change" before they did their duty.
When the new leadership at State tries to address that culture, I wish them the greatest success.