In recent months, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, has received much praise for lowering the triumphalist rhetoric that marked the early phases of the so-called "war on terror". His emphasis on the need for "a sense of humility and an appreciation of limits" is sweet music to those who question the necessity of automatically using overpowering force to defend US national interests.
But in one area Gates is not as humble or aware of limits as he aspires the military to be. In his frequent pronouncements that hard power can't do it all, he emphasises that what's needed is more soft power. But it turns out that he means massive doses of soft power as interpreted, packaged and distributed by the Pentagon and its contractors.
True, in a speech last November, Gates did say another agency -- the state department -- should get more funding for its soft-power activities, which include public diplomacy programmes like its neglected educational and cultural exchanges.
Little noticed in Gates's widely acclaimed remarks, however, was his statement: "Don't get me wrong, I'll be asking for yet more money for defence next year." Part of the money Gates intends to spend, as the Washington Post reported recently, is for a $300m, three-year effort to "engage and inspire" Iraq's population to support its government and US policies through a variety of programmes ranging from media products to entertainment (an additional $15m a year would be spent polling Iraqis).
This is a huge amount by soft-power standards. The state department expects to spend just $5.6m on public diplomacy in Iraq in fiscal 2008. The defence department money is to be distributed among four private contractors, including the Lincoln Group which, per arrangements with the Pentagon, covertly paid Iraqi newspapers to print articles composed by the US military but published as straight news items.
A few critical voices have been heard regarding Gates's hearts-and-mind initiative. Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, whose military and journalistic background makes him eminently qualified to speak about the use of soft power by the Pentagon, wrote in a letter to Gates: "At a time when this country is facing such a grave economic crisis, and at a time when the government of Iraq now shows at least a $79bn surplus from recent oil revenues, in my view it makes little sense for the US department of defence to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to propagandise the Iraqi people."
Public-diplomacy specialists have also been put off by Gates's indoctrination mission. As one noted scholar informed me by e-mail: "Communication that is seen as propaganda does not attract and thus does not produce soft power." Critics point out that the defence department's funding is not transparent, which could result in its programmes losing credibility when target audiences find out where the money really comes from. This certainly turned out to be the case during the cold war, when the CIA was exposed as the covert financial supporter of intellectual magazines like Encounter that had been considered independent. Already, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Kazemi Qomi, has complained: "Four large media companies are contributing to the Pentagon's plan to provoke the Iraqi public opinion against the Islamic Republic and strain Tehran-Baghdad relations." Such "anti-Iranian propaganda", the Iranian news agency FARS says, is "futile".
The Pentagon's costly soft-power initiative is not limited to foreign audiences, but includes the US as well. It specifies the need to "communicate effectively with our strategic audiences (ie Iraqi, pan-Arabic, international and US audiences) to gain widespread acceptance of [US and Iraqi government] core themes and messages." According to Marc Lynch, a specialist in the Middle East media, making "American audiences ... a key target for manipulation through the covert dissemination of propaganda messages should be seen as scandalous, subversive of democracy and illegal."
Scandalous it indeed is, but such homeland targeting is part of the defence department's modus operandi, as the New York Times' revelations about the military's use of domestic-media commentators as propagandists for the Pentagon indicates (the activity is currently being investigated by the federal communications commission). Nothing is worse than the misapplication of hard power, as Gates has rightly suggested. He seems unwilling to admit, however, that the same is true in the case of what the Pentagon interprets soft power to be.