It’s the Policy, Stupid!

A report delivered by the Defense Science Board, an advisory committee to the US Defense Department, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense around the end of September has gotten very little media attention, maybe because, as Tom Shanker of the NYT writes,

A harshly critical report by a Pentagon advisory panel says the United States is failing in its efforts to explain the nation’s diplomatic and military actions to the Muslim world, but it warns that no public relations plan or information operation can defend America from flawed policies.

Which rather sums up a point Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror makes repeatedly. Of course the Bush administration didn’t listen to him and just to prove they won’t get the point of this report either, Larry Di Rita made this comment on behalf of the Pentagon:

“We’re wrestling with this,” Mr. Di Rita said. “But it doesn’t change the underlying principle, at least with respect to the Department of Defense. Our job is to put out information to the public that is accurate, and to put it out as quickly as we can.”

The 102-page report is online here (PDF). I haven’t had any luck with the link, but happily, Helena Cobban has heavily excerpted the paper on her blog. Here are a couple of gems to show why it bounced off the stony skulls of the Bushies:

  • Strategic communication [to be effective, will] … build on indepth knowledge of other cultures and factors that motivate human behavior. It will adapt techniques of skillful political campaigning, even as it avoids slogans, quick fixes, and mind sets of winners and losers. It will search out credible messengers and create message authority. It will seek to persuade within news cycles, weeks, and months. It will engage in a respectful dialogue of ideas that begins with listening and assumes decades of sustained effort.
  • But opinions must be taken into account when policy options are considered and implemented. At a minimum, we should not be surprised by public reactions to policy choices. Policies will not succeed unless they are communicated to global and domestic audiences in ways that are credible and allow them to make informed, independent judgments. Words in tone and substance should avoid offence where possible; messages should seek to reduce, not increase, perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards.

Listening?? Avoid offence?? Isn’t that a little too….French? But, wait. It gets worse….

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

  • Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies.[HC emphasis] The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
  • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.
  • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim selfdetermination.
  • […]

  • Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic — namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is — for Americans — really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they arereally just talking to themselves.

Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of “dissemination of information,” or even one of crafting and delivering the “right” message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none — the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. Inevitably therefore, whatever Americans do and say only serves the party that has both the message and the “loud and clear” channel: the enemy.

And this, Helena says, is repeated throughout the report:In other words, they do not hate us for our values, but because of our policies.

But then an administration that thought a pre-9/11 briefing titled Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US was a “historical document” will likely think this report should go in the bin with other such famously ignored reports as The Future of Iraq project and Joe Wilson’s report on Niger yellowcake.