In August 2009 the American journal Foreign Policy published an article by Admiral Michael G. Mullen. The subject was strategic communication (Stratcom). The admiral believed that America generally is good at communicating there is a problem with credibility. The reason for this is that not enough time is taken to build trust and relations.

The present wavering of the Obama administration on the “surge” of American troops is one clear example of the problem. The most common question Admiral Mullen gets in Pakistan and Afghanistan is: “Will you really stay with us this time?”, “Can we really count on you?” The problem is not that the troops on the ground are not doing an excellent job.

This seems to be much of Vietnam over again. The United States military is winning the battle on the ground but Democratic politicians are hesitating. This is not good communication. The American actions are not speaking for themselves. Most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all in the words of McMullen. They are policy and execution problems.

An important aspect of Stratcom is cultural intelligence. Superior military power is essential in counterinsurgency but it is not enough to keep the jihadists at bay. Cultural intelligence is to understand the effect of tradition, history, and ideas. A new anthology edited by Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon of Washington DCs Institute of World Politics (Cultural Intelligence for Winning the Peace). The essays address questions like the military utility of understanding adversary culture; factoring in culture as the challenges of asymmetric conflict is factored in; the need to address the constantly changing nature of culture and much more.

Dr. Pilon has in earlier writings pointed out that Americans often assumed that the democratic system and their motives required no special rhetorical defense. The result had been, so Pilon, an ineffective public diplomacy.

A typical aspect of the problem is that the United States did very late appreciate the importance of radio for public diplomacy and strategic communication. The Communist regime in Moscow did and Nazi Germany. The United States was the last of the democracies that used international broadcasting in its foreign outreach. It was also the last of the major powers to promote its culture abroad. It was not until 1953 that an agency for global communication was established. Since 9/11 a well orchestrated strategic communications policy was needed but seemingly lacking. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2007 concluded:

“We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals. It is just plain embarrassing that al-Quaida is better at communicating its message on the internet than America.”

As a result of criticism the State Department in 2008 acquired a new undersecretary for public diplomacy: Jim Glassman. He fully understood the need for the United States to engage in dialogue with the world but he is no longer undersecretary under the new administration. Later in 2008 Republican Senator Sam Brownback introduced legislation to create a National Center for Strategic Communication. Also the Defense Department in 2008 set up a Defense Media Activity unit. One can only hope for more of the same but one must doubt if the Obama administration is understanding what it takes to win the war for the hearts and minds. In Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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