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The Pentagon is still after those hearts and minds

George Little, the Pentagon spokesperson, appeared to make an important announcement last week, saying "strategic communication" had been banned from the Pentagon's lexicon. Sounded like a good thing; strategic communication was a brainchild of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in full flower of his moment when the Pentagon could not only "do it all," it should "do it all." But when USA Today picked up his memo announcing the language change, feathers flew at the Pentagon.

My Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks thinks this is all a tempest in a turf-infested teapot.

There is a deeper issue at stake here, though, even if George Little was just asserting turf and some kind of language control. Over the past decade, the Department of Defense has fallen into, fallen prey to, or just chosen to take on an expanded sense of mission. Rumsfeld pushed the department to become, as far as possible, the integrator of stabilization, reconstruction, development, governance, and, yes, messaging for America's overseas engagement, wherever force was present. "Strategic Communication" was very much part of that expansion, aiming to reshape hearts, minds, and governments abroad to behave and understand our benign intent. As Rosa says, it became part of the "war of ideas."

Rosa's view is that the Obama administration got this effort under control. She defines the new focus this way: "'strategic communication' refers to the thoughtful integration of issues of stakeholder perception and response into policymaking, planning, and operations at every level...Strategic communication, in this view, is less about what we have to say than it is about considering how others may interpret our words and actions."

I would like to think Rosa is right in saying that this bloated mission creep has been reigned in over the past four years. I would like to think that today it is a benign willingness to take the sensitivities of others overseas into account when we shape a national message and overseas operations. But I doubt it.

There is some evidence that an institutional reigning in of "strategic communication" has taken place. A new report -- The Pentagon as Pitchman -- by Russell Rumbaugh and Matthew Leatherman, both at the Stimson Center, cautions us that much of what Rumsfeld tried to do has not been embedded at DOD. "There has been no widespread institutionalization of public diplomacy-like activities throughout the Defense Department despite a great deal of rhetoric and effort," they write.

But the desire to "shape" the views of others, win hearts and minds, and get the message out there is far from dead at DOD. As the Stimson report notes, it is alive and well at the Combatant Commands, and, especially, at Special Operations Command. These organizations are "substantially invested in multi-year programs whose core is a series of news websites built for civilians in regions around the world." While this program is not yet large -- it is about half of what the State Department spends on public diplomacy -- it is very like our civilian public diplomacy.

What makes this worth keeping an eye on is that this kind of communications management, or "strategic communication," is seen as a very integral part of the broader COCOM and Special Forces mission of "building partner capacity," in which our military works in small teams in close interaction with partner militaries and governments. Sounds benign, but it is the kind of program that can get us in deep pretty fast in a lot of countries around the globe. And it is a program, and a mission, that the Pentagon has enthusiastically signed up for, with strong White House support.

The potential downside? The military doesn't do these things terribly well -- it's not a core competence. Giving the forces this mission, moreover, weakens support for the civilian programs at State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose core competence it actually is. And, most worrisome of all, it puts a uniform on America's message -- not always well received abroad, and confusing to other militaries that we keep telling to stay out of government, the economy, and politics.

The language may be dead, and a good part of DOD not involved, but the programs that can get us in deep are still very connected to the notion of "strategic communication," whatever George Little says.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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