The selective use of information to defeat adversaries is as old as warfare itself. Psychological operations, known today as "information warfare" or "strategic information operations," are legitimate arms for controlling battlefields. Demoralizing an enemy's support base and warning civilian populations to get out of the way can shorten conflict and save lives.
Whether or not information warfare is properly deployed depends on if it effectively targets enemy communications, remains undetected, and spares non-combatants from ill effects. Unlike warfare with rifles and bombs, it uses Internet weblogs, posters, CDs, and even stories in existing media. Sometimes the source is identified, sometimes not. But there is a time to employ such tactics, and a time to set them aside.
Perhaps the United States has reached that latter point in post-Saddam Iraq, where news articles, some covertly placed by U.S. military contractors, according to reports, have undermined the credibility of Iraq's fledgling media and tarnished America's image as a champion of a free and independent press.
Obviously, it can be difficult to determine when war is over and it is time to move beyond suasion toward transparent dialogue with people who have become allies. Markers like VE-Day and VJ-Day made it easy after World War II.
Today, in post-Saddam Iraq, the situation is muddled. The new Iraqi state is not yet able to assert authority over all of its national territory and fully provide for public safety. Meanwhile, well-funded insurgents from within and outside continue to terrorize innocent citizens in an attempt to sabotage fragile democratic progress. They see a familiar order vanishing and want to halt progress. Besides threatening publishers and broadcasters into accepting their propaganda, terrorists have a covert press of their own.
In September 2004, the U.S. Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication reported that nothing seemed to counter the pervasive negative image of the United States in the Middle East. It echoed Pentagon dismay with ongoing U.S. public diplomacy efforts led by the Department of State.
Those efforts have been in reorganization mode since Congress and the Clinton Administration merged the U.S. Information Agency into the Department back in 1999. Meanwhile, Radio Sawa and Al Hurra TV, outlets run by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, have done little to weaken opposition to U.S. policies in Iraq among key resistance groups; they feature mostly American pop culture and scant news.
So it should have come as no surprise when news reports surfaced last June that the Pentagon had contracted with three Washington-based firms to develop radio and TV programs, advertising, websites and weblogs, and news articles to boost the image of the United States in the Middle East. Well-funded and more mission-oriented, the Department of Defense is in a position to plug gaps left by other agencies.
However, this information warfare campaign is now bumping up against peacetime constraints. At issue are stories written by U.S. military personnel, translated and placed by contractors in Iraqi papers either as paid advertisements, news stories, or commentaries. One reportedly ran as an opinion piece in the Baghdad newspaper Al Sabah-as if written by an Iraqi citizen.
While there is nothing unlawful about paying foreign publishers to run truthful stories, questionable attribution puts allied goals and non-combatants at risk. It can discredit the Iraqi and U.S. governments and lead insurgents to attack publishers who print such pieces-all good reasons to restrain this aspect of information warfare while strengthening efforts to promote an independent press and transparent public diplomacy programs to help feed it.
Fortunately, Iraqi media have flourished since the Defense Science Board report. Instead of the two newspapers, two radio stations, and two TV stations that operated during Saddam Hussein's time, Iraq now has more than 120 daily and weekly publications-many contentious and partisan-dozens of radio and TV stations, a new independent news agency, and no more bans on foreign satellite reception.
Moreover, the U.S. government has plenty of other ways to promote balanced reporting. The U.S. Agency for International Development funds journalist training and media development. The National Endowment for Democracy actively aids civil society by supporting local think tanks, rights monitors, and other non-governmental organizations. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's public diplomacy section can identify key intellectuals and opinion leaders who might speak out against the terrorists trying to overturn Iraq's democratic progress. All these components must work together in order to influence Iraqi public opinion.
Weak leadership and coordination still dog public diplomacy efforts between U.S. foreign operations agencies. As the third Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy in the Bush Administration and someone who should have the President's ear, Karen Hughes must pull these activities together. If she gets all of Washington's overseas communicators moving in the same direction, perhaps some of what the White House wants to tell foreign audiences will begin to stick.
The ultimate prize is a democratic Iraq, supported by a free and independent press. While it is tempting to pull out all the stops to defeat remaining insurgents, it becomes even more important to set a good example on the information battlefield as that goal is achieved.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.