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The State Department, not the Pentagon, should lead America's public diplomacy efforts

Why is the Department of Defense getting so much money and personnel to carry out the mission?

By Kristin M. Lord / October 29, 2008


Today's public diplomats wear boots, not wingtips. Increasingly, the Defense Department is at the forefront of US efforts to engage public opinion overseas. While the State Department formally leads the effort, the Pentagon has more money and personnel to carry out the public diplomacy mission.

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This trend is risky. The message foreign publics receive – not the message the US sends – changes when the Pentagon is the messenger. Putting our military, not civilians, at the forefront of US global communications undercuts the likelihood of success, distorts priorities, and undermines the effectiveness of US civilian agencies.

According to a Washington Post report, the Department of Defense will pay private contractors $300 million over three years to produce news and entertainment programs for the Iraqi public. These well-intentioned efforts aim to "engage and inspire" Iraqis to support the objectives of both the US and Iraqi governments.

Such outreach campaigns can be powerful if done well and as part of a broader strategy of engagement, political reconciliation, and economic development. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has argued eloquently that the United States must call increasingly upon "soft power" to advance national interests. Soft power can take many forms, but it is primarily the use of culture, values, and ideas to attract, instead of military or economic threats to coerce.

After the cold war, the US gutted its soft power arsenal and has yet to rebuild it fully. The Department of Defense stepped into this vacuum, and in many cases has done the job well. However, the Defense Department is not the right agency for this job.

In most circumstances, the Department of Defense (DoD) should not serve as the most visible face of the United States overseas. This is particularly true in areas where the public feels threatened by American power.

The Middle East is one area where polls show distrust of American motives and concern that America seeks to dominate the region militarily. Indeed, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey taken last year, 64 percent of Turks – citizens of a NATO ally – see the United States as the greatest threat to their country in the future. Civilians, including those who do not work for government agencies, are the best conduits for building trust with wary publics.