Q&A: Public diplomacy at the Pentagon

Last May, Michael Doran became the first deputy assistant secretary of Defense for support to public diplomacy, a newly created position to develop policy for strategic communications at Defense. Earlier this week, Government Executive interviewed Doran at his office in Arlington, Va. Edited excerpts from the interview follow:

You recently testified about CIST, that is, "countering ideological support to terrorism." Did you invent that term?

There were a number of different acronyms floating around government. There was countering violent Islamic extremism, countering violent extremism, countering ideological support for terrorism. When I came aboard we decided on CIST. It was floating out there. We didn't create it.

You've made the point that terminology matters.

It does. We saw some interesting polling that the majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda's message. The numbers on that are completely convincing. It's also true that the majority of Muslims don't know that they're a majority. They don't feel they have the moral high ground in their own societies.

So I think one of our goals should be to convince Muslims that the struggle is between all people who have common human values versus the terrorists, and to create a sense of those common interests. In that regard it's very important that we adopt terminology that allows us to emphasize that. One of our goals should be to convince that majority that they are a majority.

How do you go about that here at Defense? Shouldn't you be at the State Department?

State absolutely has the lead. What the war has taught us is that the Department of Defense is engaged in public diplomacy activities all the time. One of the things we emphasize is awareness of the fact that actions speak louder than words. The military on the ground is very much aware of the fact that when they carry out an operation it has a huge impact on how people perceive what we're doing. There needs to be people at Defense who are thinking about this.

How does that work on a practical level? What is getting done now that wasn't getting done before?

First and foremost, we're a policy office. We're not [doing] operations. On the messaging side, you had a lot of elements of the Department of Defense doing messaging or providing resources for messaging, and until this office was created there was no clear focal point for seeking policy guidance. That absence was powerfully felt. It means the guys in the field are left without guidance and they are forced to operate on the basis of watching Sunday talk shows, reading talking points and trying to figure out what is the policy framework in which they're operating. There was no clear place to get that framework.

We suggested at one point this framework with an emphasis on building a common sense of the future we could have together [with Muslims]. Making the conversation that is future-oriented and directed at the interests of Muslims, as opposed to denigrating al Qaeda directly or branding America.

There is a view out there that goes something like this: Al Qaeda's ideology is attractive to Muslims because it creates this narrative that depicts the United States as the enemy of Muslims, and therefore the way that we should counter that ideology is to show that we're not anti-Muslim. If that's the goal, then it puts the focus on us, and we end up spending a lot of time talking about us, talking about our policies, talking about our intentions and so forth.

It's our view that excessive focus on us is counterproductive. It reinforces the basic framework that al Qaeda is putting out. It's like saying, 'I'm not a crook. I'm not a crook.' What's emphasized is the question of whether you're a crook, rather than the denial.

This is a way for us to get out of that and put the emphasis squarely on Muslims and their future. If you open a conversation with Arabs about what are their aspirations and what kind of society they want and what role the United States could play in helping them achieve that, that's a very different conversation and a much more productive one.

If the majority of Muslims reject extremism but the majority don't know they're the majority, what is your role in altering that perception?

That's part of a larger discussion about strategic communications. The official definitions that are out there always emphasize, rightly so I think, syncing our messaging with our actions, so our actions reinforce our words. That's well and good, but in the current information environment a lot of strategic communication is talking to foreign audiences about themselves -- giving foreign audiences information about themselves. That's different than sending a U.S. government message. We have at our disposal an enormous amount of information about what's going on in the world. In some parts of the world people are poorly served by their own communications.

Sure, but why would they trust information from the United States?

It doesn't have to be a formal U.S. government statement. We have information at our disposal about all kinds of things. Statements that Muslim clerics have made, for instance. Polling information about what that majority of Muslims believe. This is hard data we have and it's not just us [that has it].

Let's take another example. If you have al Qaeda operating torture centers in al Anbar and then you have people like the sheiks of al Anbar stepping up and saying this happened, getting that information out to people is extremely helpful.

But why would this work? There are huge populations that don't believe the Holocaust happened. The information on that is readily available and widely documented.

I don't exclude the ability of the United States to stand up and say things that will be regarded by Muslims as true. I don't think that Middle Easterners discount everything the United States says or all information that comes out of the United States. Understanding when they reject it and when they don't is important.

This is a part of the world where conspiracy theories are widely held. They're held in our own country.

The barrier is huge and fighting against conspiracy theories is an important thing to do. It's also important to understand why there are such conspiracy theories. It has to do with growing up in an environment where people tend to discount everything that comes from their government because they know that the government information apparatus is designed to influence and not to give them the truth.

What's your biggest challenge?

One of the challenges we face is that nobody owns this subject. If you say that strategic communications is thinking ahead of time about the effect you want to achieve before you transmit information, that already means we're talking about something way beyond the realm of public affairs. On something like that no one office can own it. It's a small staff and we work closely with the regional desk and those who are providing oversight of operations.

If you think that the story of the tribes of al Anbar is one that needs to get out, and not just to Iraqis but to people in Afghanistan, people in Europe -- the story of Iraqi society rejecting al Qaeda -- whose job is it to fund the documentary filmmaker who will then make the film and distribute that? It's best if this is done by an Iraqi. Maybe the United States would like to provide funds to an Iraqi filmmaker to go out and make this documentary in his own words. Whose job is that? Where are the resources? The government is not even organized to make that happen. There needs to be streamlined mechanisms and people with the resources and the authority to make those things happen.

This could be perceived as propaganda. Don't you risk a backlash?

I don't agree. Having Iraqis stand up independently and express their views is extremely helpful, but I don't think it's the case that if the United States helps somebody [by funding a documentary] and that help is known that it necessarily discredits everything they say. I operate from a simple principle that truth, when put next to falsehood, will often win out. Not always, but often. What other choices do we have? If we think there are important stories to tell we have to play a role.

Obviously, the day-to-day messaging, that's public affairs' responsibility. But there are some of these larger questions that we think are important -- like getting the story out about al Anbar or coming up with processes to counteract the use of civilian casualties by al Qaeda and the Taliban [for propaganda].

Who does strategic communications well?

The Iranians are extremely good. If you look at Iranian communications on Iraq, the Iranian foreign minister will come out and make a statement about Iraq. Within minutes you'll have Arabic-speaking correspondents on the ground in Baghdad interviewing Iraqis about their perceptions of the situation in Baghdad, and without any reference to the foreign minister's statement, you'll have these Iraqi [interviewees] mimicking or reinforcing what the foreign minister has said. I'm amazed at the speed with which this happens. You'll also have Iranian diplomats elsewhere in the world making statements that are either supportive or directly mimicking what the foreign minister has said. All elements are all moving in the same direction.

Are any democracies adapt at this?

It's much harder for democracies. I'm struck by the speed with which the British are able to pull [the elements of government] together. It's really a function of size and physical locality. You can pull Cabinet ministers together in about 10 minutes and come up with a common position. We're just much larger.

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