Asia Defense

How the Pentagon Manipulates People Overseas

A new report outlines the U.S. Department of Defense’s military public diplomacy efforts.

How the Pentagon Manipulates People Overseas
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the American Security Project, a Washington-based think tank, released a new report outlining how the Pentagon is trying to influence public opinion in foreign countries. The report is framed around the question of how military public diplomacy can help achieve U.S. military objectives abroad without the need for what the white paper refers to in true newspeak-infused euphemistic language as “kinetic actions”;  in plain English — killing and wounding people overseas.

The U.S. Army calls such actionsInform and Influence Activities” (IIA) and defines it as, “the integration of designated information-related capabilities in order to synchronize themes, messages, and actions with operations to inform United States and global audiences, influence foreign audiences, and affect adversary and enemy decisionmaking.” However, the report notes that the U.S. Department of Defense is not supposed to engage in public diplomacy (by law this is the Department of State’s job) and the Pentagon itself – again in a true Orwellian double-think twist – has repeatedly denied that it is engaged in such activities, although it plainly is.

The report notes:  “The reality is, the military conducts operations and activities that are both directly and indirectly intended to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and military audiences to support foreign policy objectives.” Consequently, the author of the white paper, Matthew Wallin, defines military public diplomacy as: “Military communication and relationship building with foreign publics and military audiences for the purpose of achieving a foreign policy objective.”

The report lists in detail some of the Pentagon’s “information-related capabilities” such as public affairs, civil affairs operations, military information support operations (MISO), civil and cultural considerations, combat camera, operations security, soldier and leader engagement, and military deception. It is of course true that every military in the world is engaging in similar activities, yet it is the range and scope of these activities that are most striking to the outsider. For example, as the report outlines, the Pentagon funds a host of news websites around the world covering diverse geographic areas.

Also, the peculiar post-9/11 environment and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led the Department of Defense to dethrone the Department of State from its preeminent position of managing public relations with the rest of the world. The white paper states: “Faced with this reality, and the dangers of operating in a hostile environment, the military often found itself in situations where it was either required by reality or simply in a better position than the State Department to conduct public diplomacy. Additionally, one must consider the manpower resources at hand, comparing the Department of Defense’s 3.2 million total personnel6 in comparison to the Department of State’s 69,000.”

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This development may be a bit more problematic than the report acknowledges, since it can lead to an increased perception of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy (I have written about this in more detail here) abroad, as Brian E. Carlson argues in his essay “Who Tells America’s Story Abroad?” published in the book Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy:

The fact is that with State’s and the civilian agencies’ scant resources spread across a wide array of both bilateral and multilateral issues, the arrival of the US military with deep pockets and a single-minded, laser-like focus on terrorism or political-security subjects can unbalance the [civil-military] relationship. The imbalance may even appear worse than it really is, simply because the steady flow of US visitors from DoD and the regional command, public events, signing of agreements, and donations of equipment grab the local media’s attention far more than the dull, day-to-day grind of development work, political negotiations, and economic advocacy. Let’s face it, even where the military’s agenda does not dominate American foreign policy, it often appears to do so.