What’s in a Name: Strategic Communication or Deception?


It has long been recognized that strategic communication is an important tool in the arsenal of plunderers and conquerors to send messages to others. Court poets, chroniclers and historians once carried out the role of effective communication. They often exaggerated the exploits of their conquering emperors depicting them as the most ruthless monarchs living on earth. Such depictions really worked for the likes of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan and Timur. Not only did it fortify their authority within their own clan, it also terrorized the ‘other’ people to the extent that cities after cities capitulated without offering any resistance to their advancing army. There was hardly any ‘insurgent’ daring to trouble the regime.

As humanity moved from medieval period to modern time, the weapons of plunder and killing have gotten sophisticated (we sometimes know them as ‘smart’ bombs, daisy-cutters!), so have the messages. Now for the modern-day Hulagu Khans of our world (e.g., the Butchers of cities like Baghdad and Fallujah) the role of communication is shared by various agencies -” governmental and non-governmental -” working jointly to sell their “civilizing”, “democratizing”, “liberating” mission. However, unlike their savage predecessors, they don’t want to be seen or heard as rough and tough cowboys. So, they don’t like to mention the so-called collateral damages, civilian casualties that their marauding actions cause; only the statistics of their fallen angels matter. It is a chic way to hoodwink everyone, both inside and outside. And it seems that with the right amount of dosage (aided with a timely tape release from an adversary), it can even generate enough homegrown support for a re-election victory.

Then again, the problem is: strategic communication or deception may not work for the foreign audience, especially in these days of information superhighways. People are not constrained by listening to agents and “experts” (masquerading sometimes as journalists and think-tanks) of the empire-builders. They have access to the Internet and 24-hour news programs from genuine journalists and analysts informing them of the real things. Nevertheless, the importance of strategic communication is unmistakable, especially during a national crisis. It entails a refined method that charts perceptions, identifies policy priorities, devises objectives, focuses on feasible tasks, develops premises, utilizes pertinent channels, leverages new strategic and tactical dynamics, and measures success.

From the caustic interviews of Donald Rumsfeld to the Hollywood-like performances of Colin Powell in the U.N., let alone the ’embedded’ journalists parroting the Pentagon brasses, who would have thought that the recently released report by a Pentagon advisory panel – the Defense Science Board (DSB) – would fault the Bush Administration in strategic communication for its failure to explain America’s actions to the Muslim world. [1] I thought – Mr. Bush did not care what the world thinks of him or his administration! Probably, I was wrong. Not quite.

The report says, “Policies matter. Mistakes dismay our friends and provide enemies with unintentional assistance. -¦ Strategic communication is a vital component of U.S. national security. It is in crisis, and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security. -¦ To succeed, we must understand the United States is engaged in a generational and global struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and Islam. It is more than a war against the tactic of terrorism.”

The DSB report further says that the U.S. policies and actions are increasingly seen by vast majority of Muslims as hostile and threatening to Islam. Three recent polls of Muslims show an overwhelming conviction that the U.S. seeks to “dominate” and “weaken” the Muslim world.[2] Can they be blamed for entertaining such views, when they saw how the Bush Administration lied and deceived everyone with its unsubstantiated claims about the WMDs and the Ba’athist-connection with al-Qaida to justify the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in violent deaths of more than a hundred thousand of civilian Iraqis? [3]

The Zogby International poll (July 2004) found that even in ‘friendly’ Arab countries, the U.S. is viewed unfavorably by overwhelming majorities (98% in Egypt, 94% in Saudi Arabia, 88% in Morocco, 78% in Jordan, and 73% in UAE). What is more worrisome to U.S. policy planners is the fact that the favorable rating went down in all countries, except in UAE, when compared to a similar poll, conducted in April 2002. The data did not support the much-touted notion that anti-American sentiment among Muslims is the result of a clash of cultures or values. Rather, negative Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. are driven by aversion to U.S. policies, especially those that are perceived to have negative impact on Muslim countries. [4]

The DSB report rightly states: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies -¦. Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. -¦ Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination. -¦ Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic -” namely, that the war is all about us. -¦ Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of ‘dissemination of information,’ or even one of crafting and delivering the ‘right’ message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply there is none -” the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam.” [5] I could not have said any better than these DSB guys. They seem to have done their homework right.

Support for America is at an all-time low around the globe (not just limited to Muslim countries), as is testified by numerous polls across Europe and Latin America, not to mention the massive demonstrations lately against Bush’s trips to South America and Canada. In a State Department (INR) survey of editorials and op-eds in 72 countries, a whopping 82.5.5% of commentaries were negative. Reflecting upon this, the DSB report says, “-¦ The wider task of strategic communication reaches beyond the exigencies of this war and the Muslim World. Arguably it is just as essential to renew European attitudes toward America -” and this is surely a more straightforward task. Strategic communication is still a global mission.” [6]

The DSB report, amongst other recommendations, called for establishment of a Center for Strategic Communication (CSC) and a SC Committee within the NSC. The CSC would provide information and analysis on issues of importance to U.S. national security to civilian and military policy-makers. It would also support government strategic communications.

The report failed to properly gage the demographic and psychological transformation that is taking place around the globe, especially amongst young generations who now comprise nearly a half of population and only see the U.S. as the Great Satan, supporting rogue states, the U.S.-approved violence against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, and wanton killings of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone the sadistic tortures of detainees and prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.[7] Without redressing those issues, and amending fences that bridges people – no ‘strategic’ communication will be able to whitewash the ugly faces of America that the world got used to seeing in recent years.

The report also fails to understand the impact of Osama bin Laden amongst future generations of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. His fight against the U.S. and its allies is not viewed as one that is bent on imposing Islam (a favorite theme with the Bush Administration in its ‘war on terror’) on anyone but as one of true resistance against western hegemony. He probably would be viewed as one, much like Che Guevara or Imam Shamil, who dared to fight as a David against the Goliath of his time. In contrast, George W. Bush would possibly be viewed as Hulagu Khan of our time who killed and destroyed Baghdad, the cradle of civilization. Memory lingers, and painful ones linger even longer.

So, it is clear that the Pentagon is actually more concerned about muzzling or managing negative images of America abroad, especially amongst Muslims, than modifying its approach to preemption and unilateralism for global hegemony. The question is: would strategic communication alone be able to give a positive twist to America’s image?


[1]. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Washington D.C., September 2004, p. 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/2004-09-Strategic_Communication.pdf

[2]. Ibid. p. 35.

[3]. See the Lancet report on Iraqi civilian casualties. Dr Les Roberts, who led the study, said: "Making conservative assumptions we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most of the violent deaths." (See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3962969.stm and http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996596 )

[4]. An Initiative: Strengthening U.S.-Muslim Communications, Center for the Study of the Presidency, July 2003, pp. 43-44.

[5]. Op. cit., pp. 40-41.

[6]. Op. cit., p. 47.

[7]. See, e.g., the Guardian report: Smoking while Iraq burns by Naomi Klein, Nov. 26, 2004, and the New York Times article: Red Cross finds detainee abuse in Guantanamo by Neil A. Lewis, Nov. 30, 2004.