Soft Power

Smart words from our SecDef:

“We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals,” he said. “It is just plain embarrassing that Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.”

Mr. Gates expressed regret over decisions by previous administrations to cut the United States Agency for International Development and to abolish the United States Information Agency and divide its responsibilities among other offices.

The defense secretary urged the creation of “a permanent, sizable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills.” These people, he said, would be drawn from the civilian world — with expertise in such areas as agriculture, urban infrastructure and law — to work alongside the military and help rebuild and stabilize world trouble spots.

I would heartily support all of those things. But the implementation isn’t going to be so simple, for a number of reasons.

When we put American boots on the ground, whether it’s a few dozen in Somalia or hundreds of thousands in Iraq, we have a well-established process for doing so: negotiating with relevant allies for air space and basing rights, calling up certain brigades to active duty, and a million other things that are very much above my pay grade. I can’t say for sure, but my gut instinct is that the process for deploying civil infrastructure experts is not nearly so cut-and-dry.

Furthermore, what we’re talking about here is essentially a State Department consulting shop — a government-run version of McKinsey. So why not just help the Iraqis or Afghans or whomever to hire McKinsey, or Deloitte, or whatever private contractor they wish? Unlike the defense contracting business, there are actually a number of private consulting companies that could legitimately compete for this business, and probably do a better job at it than the U.S. Government.

As to Gates’ first point, about America’s message abroad, I think the State Department is stumbling towards the right answer here by empowering the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, a position created in 1999 and notably held by Bush consigliere Karen Hughes for a couple of unsuccessful years. Bush’s first appointee, Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue ad exec, seems like a much more appropriate choice. One can imagine that a competent President (Obama, Clinton) and a seasoned Secretary of State (Biden, Richardson, Holbrooke) might be able to take this position and make it really useful.

But, of course, action speak louder than words, as Fred Kaplan noted when Hughes was first tapped for the job. All the slickly-produced ads in the world won’t help as long as America trots around the world launching pre-emptive wars and ignoring global treaties on important issues like arms control, global warming, and torture. If the product’s a turd, all the marketing brainpower in the world can’t sell it.