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Message to Muslim World Gets a Critique

by Tom Shanker

WASHINGTON - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written a searing critique of government efforts at "strategic communication" with the Muslim world, saying that no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says American messages to counter information coming from extremists abroad "lack credibility. (Brian Bohannon / AP) The critique by the chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, comes as the United States is widely believed to be losing ground in the war of ideas against extremist Islamist ideology. The issue is particularly relevant as the Obama administration orders fresh efforts to counter militant propaganda, part of its broader strategy to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate," Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.

"I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all," he wrote. "They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

While President Obama has sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the eyes of the Muslim world - including through a widely praised speech in Egypt on June 4 - the perception of America as an arrogant oppressor has not changed noticeably, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where United States forces remain engaged in war, and in Pakistan, where American-launched missiles aimed at militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda have killed civilians.

Last week, during a visit to Pakistan by Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special envoy, Pakistanis told his entourage that America was widely despised in their country because, they said, it was obsessed with finding and killing Osama bin Laden to avenge the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Admiral Mullen expressed concern over a trend to create entirely new government and military organizations to manage a broad public relations effort to counter anti-Americanism, which he said had allowed strategic communication to become a series of bureaucracies rather than a way to combat extremist ideology.

He also challenged a popular perception that Al Qaeda operates from primitive hide-outs and still wins the propaganda war against the United States. "The problem isn't that we are bad at communicating or being outdone by men in caves," Admiral Mullen wrote. "Most of them aren't even in caves. The Taliban and Al Qaeda live largely among the people. They intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelines."

American messages to counter extremist information campaigns "lack credibility, because we haven't invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven't always delivered on promises," he wrote.

As a guide, Admiral Mullen cited American efforts at rebuilding Europe after World War II and then containing communism as examples of successes that did not depend on opinion polls or strategic communication plans. He cited more recent military relief missions after natural disasters as continuing that style of successful American efforts overseas.

"That's the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves," Admiral Mullen wrote. "We shouldn't care if people don't like us. That isn't the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time."

Members of Congress also have expressed concern about the government's programs for strategic communication, public diplomacy and public affairs. Both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have raised questions about the Pentagon's programs for strategic communication - and about how money is spent on them.

The Senate Armed Services Committee issued a budget report last month noting that while "strategic communications and public diplomacy programs are important activities," it was unclear whether these efforts were integrated within the Pentagon or across other departments and agencies. "Nor is the committee able to oversee adequately the funding for the multitude of programs," the Senate report stated.

Admiral Mullen did not single out specific government communications programs for criticism, but wrote that "there has been a certain arrogance to our ‘strat comm' efforts." He wrote that "good communications runs both ways."

"It's not about telling our story," he stated. "We must also be better listeners."

The Muslim community "is a subtle world we don't fully - and don't always attempt to - understand," he wrote. "Only through a shared appreciation of the people's culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative."

He acknowledged that the term strategic communication was "probably here to stay," but argued that it should be limited to describing "the process by which we integrate and coordinate" government communications programs.

Coinciding with the publication of his essay, Admiral Mullen released a YouTube video inviting questions from members of the armed services and the public on a range of national security and military personnel issues for an online discussion.

"The chairman intends to use social media to expand the two-way conversation with service members and the public," said a statement announcing the interactive video question-and-answer session.

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