The Washington Post did a huge front-page story about the faltering U.S. efforts to conduct public diplomacy against ISIS, particularly the doings of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which was established as a war room to counter al-Qaeda and ISIS online.
We, us, taxpayers should be horrified.
Much of the article focuses on disputes about the content on U.S. counter-ISIS messaging. One public diplomacy chief, Ambassador Alberto Gonzalez (who I met briefly at a DC think tank thing) wanted to use the kind of grisly imagery that ISIS uses against them. This rankled rankled some and he was retired and his replacements focused on snark.
In journalism there is something known as the “inverted pyramid.” The biggest most important facts are at the beginning of an article and the details are towards the end. The article on public diplomacy was a bit more a long form piece so in that sense the inverted pyramid was not essential. But there was a sort of inverted pyramid in terms of the focus of the article and the importance of the subject in terms of U.S. public diplomacy.
The Media is the Message?
Most of the article was about a fight over the content of the U.S. diplomacy messaging. People understand content (because it is meant to be understood – that’s why it is content.) Reporters, particularly understand content. But in public diplomacy, as in everything else, there are lots of mistakes, false starts, and blind alleys. If we don’t have the perfect response each time, so be it. If some salvos miss, there should be plenty more ammunition.
The Institution is a Mess
But there isn’t. The CSCC is still establishing its organizational culture. It has already cycled through 3 directors (and overall the broader public diplomacy effort is not much better off.) They have a tiny budget and have to fight for office space. When the plan for the CSCC was proposed, President Obama was furious, “This is what I’ve been asking for — why haven’t we been doing this already?”
When the CSCC’s first director took office, 9/11 was nearly a decade past. His wife asked, apparently incredulous, “You’re doing this now?”
I’ve gone to about 2000 DC think tank things on terrorism over the past decade and a half and at every single one, speakers have discussed the need to “win the war of ideas.” But no one seemed to have a clue how to do this. Now, almost 15 years after 9/11, we still don’t have a clue. My wife, with her own snark, noted, “Welcome to government.”
But it only took a year for us to gear up and invade Iraq!
The case study on the bureaucratic politics of the failure to build an effective public diplomacy operation after 9/11 should be fascinating.
The Measuring the Message
The bureaucratic failures are the subtext to the fight over content. Fine, but buried in the article is the truly crucial detail.
And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” [a State Department produced anti-ISIS video] even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it accomplished its main object: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria
Later chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce added, “If we can’t measure the impact of what we’re doing, how do we prove it’s effective?”
This is the buried nugget. We don’t know how to do public diplomacy because we can’t really figure out what about it we can measure. There is a strategic problem – what can public diplomacy actually do and how do we know if we are doing it? There is also a technical issue: how do we understand and measure online activity to make our efforts effective. A couple hundred twitter users should not be able to drive the goverrnment of a super-power bonkers. And the inability of our government to manage this problem (not necessarily solve it – droning bloggers seems out of proportion) makes us appear ineffectual.
These are hard problems with no permanent solutions. But the fact that this is where we are almost 15 years after 9/11 – when the challenge of public diplomacy has been front and center throughout that time – is absolutely ludicrous.