Information operations are known by many names — public diplomacy, strategic influence, political warfare — but the purpose is the point. It’s vital for America to advance national security by changing the way people think about our country and challenging the negative messages spread by our adversaries.
For the past several years, the Defense Department has assumed the leading role in information operations. This is a development that has upset some members of Congress. The House Appropriations Committee has slashed by half the almost $1 billion defense information-operations request for 2010. The balance is frozen until the Pentagon reports to Congress how it has spent its funding in this area since 2005.
In the House Appropriations Committee report on defense appropriations for fiscal 2010, it was asserted that the Pentagon is exceeding its usual roles and missions, that the approach goes “far beyond a traditional military information operation.” Yet these are not traditional times. The war on terrorism has compelled the Defense Department to come to grips with a quickly evolving assortment of unconventional challenges. Under these circumstances, traditional approaches not only are inadequate to this task but also are dangerous.
American counterinsurgency doctrine recognizes the centrality of information operations to success in unconventional war. They are necessary to build confidence in the legitimacy and capabilities of friendly governments; obtain local, regional and international support for U.S. efforts; publicize the depredations of our enemies; discredit insurgent propaganda; and provide a more compelling alternative to attract the support and commitment of the local population. In wars of perception, these missions are as important as combat operations, if not more so.
The Defense Department has brought energy and innovation to the information-operations mission, mostly out of necessity. Other agencies are not getting the job done. Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, author of “Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam,” told us that the State Department has been “a lackluster steward of public diplomatic efforts. The only bright spot has been the Defense Department.” The Pentagon has devoted time and resources systematically to studying the challenge of operations in the information domain, craft doctrine, organize, train and integrate its efforts with combat and other operations. Cutting back on defense efforts in this area is “exactly the opposite direction of how we should be going,” he warned.
Terrorists and conventional state adversaries are very active in the information domain because it is the one area in which they can challenge the United States with the hope of winning. Digital technology enables insurgents to marshal more than sufficient resources to compete for local hearts and minds, and in some respects, they face fewer limitations. As the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual puts it, “insurgents are not constrained by truth.” They also face no limits regarding journalistic ethics. Some congressmen may be having fits that the United States paid to place occasional favorable stories in some Iraqi media outlets, but Iran is underwriting whole newspapers, radio and TV stations in Afghanistan. There’s no chance Tehran practices a “hands off” editorial policy.
Ideally, the United States would pursue information operations through an integrated, coordinated interagency program following a coherent strategy aimed at achieving critical strategic effects. This would require a major presidential initiative, something President George W. Bush did not do but which President Obama may yet undertake. In the meantime, the Defense Department is the sole government agency adequately executing this mission. If the Pentagon goes silent, the field will be left to our adversaries. In the battle of ideas, Congress is forcing unilateral disarmament.