U.S. News and World Report on August 16, 2013, published an important article by Michael P. Noonan on political warfare. Excerpts below:

There will, Mr. Noonan mentioned in the forthcoming fall issue of the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute “Orbis” appear an article that deals with the very issue of using governmental means to competitively engage with our threats, challengers and competitors abroad.

Mr. Noonan also commented on an article by Nadia Schadlow (“Competetive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence, Small Wars Journal, November 5, 2012).

She argues that organizations across the U.S. government that work overseas have to think about the challenge of their operating environments in ways that deal with the competitive nature of those interactions. From her introduction:

Being successful in a competition requires knowing and understanding both one’s competitors and oneself. Yet in those areas where non-military instruments of power dominate, the culture and the organizations needed to act competitively to achieve desired outcomes is generally absent. For the most part, competitive thinking is left to the realm of hard power. Only our military and intelligence agencies are structured to think and act competitively. The imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power is likely to continue unless civilian agencies develop approaches which account for the contested landscapes in which they function.

A posture of competitive engagement would require that the civilian actors who oversee U.S. economic and humanitarian programs account for the fact that new ideas, economic strategies, civic action plans, and even public health-related initiatives are contested by vested interests or ideological or political opponents. This is true in a range of countries—from Pakistan, to Egypt, to Uzbekistan, to Somalia. It requires the recognition that even the building of a girl’s school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act. As the head of the Australian government’s aid agency put it, “aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political.”

In order to make these non-military and non-intelligence agencies more capable of operating in competitive environments she argues that:

  1. There needs to be a cultural shift in U.S. civilian agencies: “A shift in the prevailing mindset would recognize that the use of civilian tools to shape, build, or influence often encounters some opposition or generates a contest between competing ideas or approaches.”
  2. Such a shift will make distinct information requirements. But while “intelligence” is seen as anathema to some civilian agencies, “information grounded in history and the political context of any engagement effort is critical. Tools that seek to influence political outcomes require a serious inventory of political actors in the formal and informal domains.”
  3. Such agencies must have the flexibility to respond and change with the unfolding contests on the ground: “This approach recognizes that the character of an engagement will unfold in different ways since U.S. actions generate responses—by allies as well as adversaries.”

She both recognizes and elaborates the barriers in the way of preparing for such competitive engagement, but she advances an important argument. This is particularly the case when one stops to consider just the scope and breadth of competition in the contemporary Middle East.

When examining events across Africa, in Egypt (on both sides of the Suez Canal), in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and all the way to the South China Sea, it is not hard to grasp the important contributions that preparing American international actors for competitive engagement and also, in certain cases, for the conduct of political warfare abroad. It is important for the United States to at least try to be able to shape events on the ground overseas with as little force as possible or else live with the consequences of outcomes that may call for the use of more force down the road.

 Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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