What Propaganda Means and Why It Matters

U.S. Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft, designed for psychological and information operations. (Federation of American Scientists, original source unknown)

Let’s suppose that a large American newspaper ran an editorial deflecting accusations that its political opinions were too partisan. It deflected those who argued against the newspaper’s position and advanced the position that the newspaper’s opinion were correct and fair. Would any reasonable person accuse the newspaper of engaging in propaganda? Of course not.

Yet that’s essentially what Tom Vanden Brook engaged in through his column in USA Today this week. If you don’t believe me, just read the two definitions of propaganda he cites in his article arguing that the U.S. military engages in propaganda.

I’m not arguing that Vanden Brook or USA Today engage in propaganda. I am arguing that Vanden Brook is engaging in typically sloppy thinking about what constitutes propaganda, a word so broad and thick that it obscures, contrary to what he argues, far more than it illuminates. Vanden Brook quotes Webster’s Dictionary, which provides the fairly standard definition of propaganda, and compares it to the Government Accountability Office’s definition of Military Information Support Operations.

It’s a neat trick, except that Vanden Brook should know better: Military Information Support Operations (MISO, also known as psychological operations) is a subset of Information Operations (Infoops), about which Vanden Brook has written before.  So he knows that he’s not giving the whole story by citing these two definitions. But then if you parse the dictionary’s sloppy and vague language, you could easily apply it to Vanden Brook’s article: propaganda is a “systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of a particular idea…to further one’s own cause or to damage and opposing one”. He’s making a concerted argument, in the third-largest newspaper in the country, supporting his contention and undermining opposing viewpoints. Is that propaganda? Of course not. It just demonstrates what unsound ground he’s writing on.

Vanden Brook would like propaganda to cover a lot of common ground.  He wants it to describe all  of what the military communicates in theater operations to be described as propaganda. But here the differences are important. Like too many policymakers, practitioners and journalists before him, Vanden Brook confuses MISO and Information Operations. MISO is primarily concerned with “foreign audiences” – that is, the civilian population. Infoops, when not also including all the other tools of information warfare (including network warfare, electronic jamming, military deception and the like), is specifically targeted against enemy forces. So: is a MISO campaign to warn civilians of unexploded ordinance propaganda? Is an infoops leaflet urging enemy insurgents to join the government militia propaganda? Is a public affairs radio broadcast encouraging voter turnout propaganda?

It should be noted that beyond the doctrinal confusion – the Joint Manual insists that MISO must work with Public Affairs, whose entire credibility relies on truth, but can also engage in military deception, like Infoops – this gets hopelessly tangled in the complex environment of modern operations, particularly in counterinsurgency. In peacekeeping, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, there is simply no neat division between civilian and combatant, so there is no functional difference between MISO and Infoops. The unfortunate fact that MISO and Infoops sound so much alike in name just adds to the confusion.

But throwing it all into a box and slapping on the propaganda label doesn’t help. I am sympathetic to the journalist and editor who need a simple, demotic vocabulary to describe these confusing, even subtle, distinctions to the public in readily accessible prose. But in this case, propaganda is more inflaming and obscuring than clarifying. It doesn’t explain what the military is doing in these difficult, often treacherous, environments. “Propaganda” doesn’t describe anything. It characterizes.

The solution is better reporting and better writing. By showing what soldiers, Marines and Airmen do on these operations, and their intended effect, good journalism could even help clarify the confusion about the fundamental difference between Infoops and MISO. I’ve read about some activities that look like public diplomacy, and I’m not entirely clear on how public affairs fits into complex counterinsurgency or stability operations environments, either. None of this fits neatly under the rubric “propaganda,” nor should it. And to try to do so entirely misses the point.

Because if Vanden Brook had read his theory, he’d know that the stakes couldn’t be higher: David Petraeus wrote in his seminal counterinsurgency manual that the information operations “[logical line of operations] LLO may often be the decisive LLO.” Theorists from Clausewitz to David Galula wrote about the importance of the strategic struggle for information, public opinion and perception. Wars have been fought and lost over this ground for centuries. Many have argued it is at least as important as the combat itself.

I have written extensively and in depth about the doctrinal, operational and theoretical problems of propaganda and the operational communications community in my forthcoming book on public diplomacy. I hope this short article and my book provide the opportunity to untangle and redevelop the tools necessary to communicate in the complex and dangerous tactical environments we will no doubt face in the years ahead.


A More Political NATO

President Barack Obama speaking at a press conference concluding the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 22. (NATO)

I very recently finished a major public diplomacy project supporting the NATO Summit  which took place May 20-21 in Chicago. I interviewed 12 NATO member state ambassadors to the United States and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Chairman of the American delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for a series of video capsules to explore the meaning and importance of this enduring international organization where I worked for  six years.

Working at NATO for as long as I did I became used to a familiar series of critical tropes attacking the organization.  Policy critics typically harped on burden-sharing, as if countries as disparate as Greece and Luxembourg could possibly be compared to France and Great Britain, never mind the United States — an absurd comparison.  Nobody claims the Mississippi National Guard isn’t pulling its weight compared to the Texas National Guard (which has deployed the most during the last 10 years), yet the National Guard system is the better analogy to the military organization of Europe than comparing individual European states to one another or to America.

The anti-war movement, when roused to turn its animus towards NATO, can be relied upon to call the organization a terrorist organization, an armed proxy for American foreign policy, or the jack-booted thugs of the industrialized West.  Needless to say having worked there and watched the consensus process at its best (and worst), I can vouch that none of these caricatures is remotely accurate.

Both factions, though, share a fascination with the utility of force (to borrow a phrase) —  which is easy to grasp in its simplistic contours (usually in troop numbers or bombing sorties) and makes for often compelling or grisly graphics and therefore the 24-hour news cycle.  A predictable dichotomy has fallen into place as a result, and neither side sees it much in their interest to deviate from its comforting narrative: policy critics think Allies are doing too little, in effect, and anti-war protestors think NATO is doing too much.  There’s no common ground, of course, but no rhetorical alternative.

Much less immediately obvious or compelling — boring, really, to watch but just as real in its effects — is NATO’s political function, which has transformed Europe and its surrounding neighborhood to a terrain unrecognizable to an earlier generation, never mind historians of an earlier epoch.  NATO now approaches the OSCE and the UN for its expansive and expanding network of peaceful, productive political relationships developed since the end of the Cold War.

This is the alternative ground lacking in the NATO-critical dialectic and I happily found it crossed over and over again during my interviews.  I was taken by the extraordinary language of reconciliation, openness, and inclusion used by several of the ambassadors who talked about their countries’ desire to expand NATO’s membership to their neighbors, with whom (mostly in the Balkans) they had fought in less than a generation.  Two ambassadors talked about how NATO member countries sought agreements among themselves, with the Soviet Union (at the time) and with Warsaw Pact countries to lower and limit nuclear and conventional arms in the waning days of the Cold War, well before the collapse of both NATO’s rivals.  NATO of course helped many former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries rejoin the West and integrate with the European Union.  But even the Latvian ambassador talked specifically how NATO helped his country become more friendly with Russia following the Soviet occupation.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (left) and former Serbian President Boris Tadic meet near Vukovar in Croatia, 2010. (Croatia Government via European Forum)

In other words, NATO is not purely a security organization to them.  It is a forum for political reconciliation in a region that has seen centuries of war, conflict, shifting borders, and collapsing demographics.  After the French and Germans and Poles and Balts had reconciled their histories, now the Croats and Slovenes are working hard to expand NATO to include the Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and (someday!) the Serbs.  The European Union will follow close on NATO, which despite current troubles grows only to the greater good of the larger neighborhood, an extraordinary counter-historical experiment in European political integration and reconciliation.

Vaclav Havel once talked about politics being the art of the impossible. As president of Czechoslovakia he presided over the break-up of his country into Czech and Slovak lands. He lamented (hoped) at the time that one day the two countries might once again be reunited.  It sounded crazy when he said it, but he wasn’t far wrong. Both countries eventually were rejoined, side by side, first in NATO and then the European Union. The same may soon be said for the states of the former warring Yugoslavia, and a more political NATO will be the forum for their pacific reunion.

I reiterate here my concern that the term “political” has evolved almost exclusively into a pejorative, so that in calling NATO political evokes notions of a sclerotic organization mired in and paralyzed by petty infighting. In reality a flexible, truly political organization — as I have argued here — has much more to offer than that.  NATO is far more than what its policy critics can grasp and embodies perhaps the greatest aspirations its anti-war opponents could wish upon the world.

UPDATE July 5: This post was adapted and updated for a op-ed with (with Brett Swaney) for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University.