One of the many things I love about Donald Rumsfeld is that he’s totally unrepentant. Back in 2001, the Pentagon under his leadership created the controversial Office of Strategic Influence, which was closed down just a few months later after its existence became public. Rightly or wrongly, the Pentagon was accused of creating a propaganda office. Now, the former defense secretary has a bigger vision: he is advocating a “21st century agency for global communications.”
This was one of the major themes in one of Rumsfeld’s first post-Pentagon public comments at a conference today on network centric warfare sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. According to Rumsfeld, the United States is losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world, and the answer to that, in part, is through the creation of this new government agency.
During the the Q&A after the speech, I asked Rumsfeld what this new agency might entail (he was pretty clear it wouldn’t be a resurrected U.S. Information Agency, which was merged into State Department in 1999), and why, when there is an abundance of media available in the private sector, the government needs to get involved.
I’ll just let Rumsfeld speak for himself:
Private media does not get up in the morning and say what can we do to promote the values and ideas that the free Western nations believe in? It gets up in the morning and says they’re going to try to make money by selling whatever they sell… The way they decided to do that is to be dramatic and if it bleeds it leads is the common statement in the media today. They’ve got their job, and they have to do that, and that’s what they do.
We need someone in the United States government, some entity, not like the old USIA . . . I think this agency, a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, pods are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities. We do not with any systematic organized way attempt to engage the battle of ideas and talk about the idea of beheading, and what’s it’s about and what it means. And talk about the fact that people are killing more Muslims than they are non-Muslims, these extremists. They’re doing it with suicide bombs and the like. We need to engage and not simply be passive and allow that battle of competition of ideas.
What would this agency actually do? Hard to say, but Rumsfeld referred approvingly back to when the Army paid reporters to plant stories in the local press in Iraq. He still thinks that was a good idea (and blames the U.S. press for screwing it up).
In Rumsfeld’s view, the free press can co-exist with government sponsored/produced/paid news. “It doesn’t mean we have to infringe on the role of the free press, they can go do what they do, and that’s fine,” says Rumsfeld. “Well, it’s not fine, but it’s what it is, let’s put it that way.”