Re-Inventing Political Warfare

The U.S. needs to re-think how it competes on the world stage.

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Last week, I wrote here that the U.S. can't only deal with al-Qaida militarily and stated that: "The U.S. military will be a player in all of this, but it should really be supporting the other interagency actors involved in assisting the regional governments under threat." Hours after submitting that blog entry a colleague alerted me to the fact that in the forthcoming fall issue of FPRI's quarterly journal of world affairs, " Orbis," an article will appear that deals with the very issue of using other governmental means to competitively engage with our threats, challengers and competitors abroad.

In "Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America's Influence," Nadia Schadlow, a former Defense Policy Board member and Senior Program Officer in the International Security & Foreign Policy Program at the Smith Richardson Foundation, argues that organizations across the U.S. government that work overseas have to think about the challenge of their operating environments in ways that deal with the competitive nature of those interactions. From her introduction:

Being successful in a competition requires knowing and understanding both one's competitors and oneself. Yet in those areas where non-military instruments of power dominate, the culture and the organizations needed to act competitively to achieve desired outcomes is generally absent. For the most part, competitive thinking is left to the realm of hard power. Only our military and intelligence agencies are structured to think and act competitively. The imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power is likely to continue unless civilian agencies develop approaches which account for the contested landscapes in which they function.

A posture of competitive engagement would require that the civilian actors who oversee U.S. economic and humanitarian programs account for the fact that new ideas, economic strategies, civic action plans, and even public health-related initiatives are contested by vested interests or ideological or political opponents. This is true in a range of countries—from Pakistan, to Egypt, to Uzbekistan, to Somalia. It requires the recognition that even the building of a girl's school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act. As the head of the Australian government's aid agency put it, "aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

In order to make these non-military and non-intelligence agencies more capable of operating in competitive environments she argues that:

  1. There needs to be a cultural shift in U.S. civilian agencies: "A shift in the prevailing mindset would recognize that the use of civilian tools to shape, build, or influence often encounters some opposition or generates a contest between competing ideas or approaches."
  2. Such a shift will make distinct information requirements. But while "intelligence" is seen as anathema to some civilian agencies, "information grounded in history and the political context of any engagement effort is critical. Tools that seek to influence political outcomes require a serious inventory of political actors in the formal and informal domains."
  3. Such agencies must have the flexibility to respond and change with the unfolding contests on the ground: "This approach recognizes that the character of an engagement will unfold in different ways since U.S. actions generate responses—by allies as well as adversaries."

She both recognizes and elaborates the barriers in the way of preparing for such competitive engagement, but she advances an important argument. This is particularly the case when one stops to consider just the scope and breadth of competition in the contemporary Middle East.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Complementing her argument in many ways was a piece written on back in late June of this year by Michael Doran of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. They argue that the United States really needs to re-invent and empower the United States government's ability to conduct political warfare which died with the end of the Cold War. In their words:

Clearly, the president needs options between military intervention and complete nonintervention -- ways to influence developments in the Middle East without deploying Reaper drones or sending U.S. ground forces. To give Obama the tools he needs, the U.S. government should reinvigorate its capacity to wage "political warfare,"  defined in 1948 by George Kennan,  then the State Department's director of policy planning, as "the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives." Such measures, Kennan noted, were "both overt and covert" and ranged from "political alliances, economic measures (as ERP -- the Marshall Plan), and 'white' propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of 'friendly' foreign elements, 'black' psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states."

Covert action was revived after the 9/11 attacks, but it has been primarily kinetic -- consisting of drone strikes, renditions, and commando raids. In fact, the lack of a complementary political strategy makes it impossible to undermine persistent foes, and forces us to rely more than we should on direct military action, which often does not achieve any lasting effect. A more indirect, politically focused approach is needed to exert American influence in countries like Egypt, where we have no intention of sending Reaper drones to kill Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but nevertheless need to counter the organization's hardline policies.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

When examining events across Africa, in Egypt (on both sides of the Suez Canal), in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and all the way to the South China Sea, it is not hard to grasp the important contributions that preparing American international actors for competitive engagement and also, in certain cases, for the conduct of political warfare abroad. While the publics' mood for involvement in further overseas adventures is less than sanguine and as budgetary follies lead to reducing funding for defense and non-defense programs it still remains important for the United States to at least try to be able to shape events on the ground overseas with as little force as possible or else live with the consequences of outcomes that may call for the use of more force down the road.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.