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Actions Speak Louder than Words

September 4, 2009


President Obama has made a point of trying to improve relations with the Muslim world. Admiral Michael Mullen, USN, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees that those relations need to be improved but insists that actions, not words, are what is needed [“Message to Muslim World Gets a Critique,” by Thom Shanker, New York Times, 27 August 2009]. Mullen’s words were aimed at a military audience (they were published in the Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal), but they have wide applicability to all government efforts. The Admiral asserts that “no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting.”


Shanker thinks that Mullen wrote the critique because he believes that the United States is “losing ground in the war of ideas against extremist Islamist ideology.” Shanker also notes that “the issue is particularly relevant as the Obama administration orders fresh efforts to counter militant propaganda, part of its broader strategy to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Shanker continues:


‘To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,’ Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique. … ‘I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,’ he wrote. ‘They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.’


Mullen’s words align with the Obama administration’s desired direction for foreign policy [see my post The Changing World of International Relations]. He is simply reflecting the challenge that plagues all leaders; policy statements are not always translated into appropriate action. Shanker reports that even though President Obama’s June speech in Egypt to the Muslim world was widely praised, “the perception of America as an arrogant oppressor has not changed noticeably, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where United States forces remain engaged in war, and in Pakistan, where American-launched missiles aimed at militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda have killed civilians.” Admiral Mullen has always been known as a thoughtful and frank-speaking officer. It comes as no surprise that he has “expressed concern over a trend to create entirely new government and military organizations to manage a broad public relations effort to counter anti-Americanism, which he said had allowed strategic communication to become a series of bureaucracies rather than a way to combat extremist ideology.” Mullen also assumed the position as America’s top military leader with some clear ideas about how to proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan.


[In his essay,] he … challenged a popular perception that Al Qaeda operates from primitive hide-outs and still wins the propaganda war against the United States. ‘The problem isn’t that we are bad at communicating or being outdone by men in caves,’ Admiral Mullen wrote. ‘Most of them aren’t even in caves. The Taliban and Al Qaeda live largely among the people. They intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelines.’ American messages to counter extremist information campaigns ‘lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises,’ he wrote. As a guide, Admiral Mullen cited American efforts at rebuilding Europe after World War II and then containing communism as examples of successes that did not depend on opinion polls or strategic communication plans. He cited more recent military relief missions after natural disasters as continuing that style of successful American efforts overseas. ‘That’s the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves,’ Admiral Mullen wrote. ‘We shouldn’t care if people don’t like us. That isn’t the goal. The goal is credibility. And we earn that over time.'”


We have certainly found this to be true in our work in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Enterra Solutions® has been welcomed because it has delivered on its promises when others before it had failed to do so. It’s exciting to see progress and change. A news article from a regional media source about small business management training conducted by Enterra Solutions demonstrates that local people are aware of what is going on. Admiral Mullen insists, and I agree, that in order to gain respect you have to show respect.


Admiral Mullen did not single out specific government communications programs for criticism, but wrote that ‘there has been a certain arrogance to our ‘strat comm’ efforts.’ He wrote that ‘good communications runs both ways.’ ‘It’s not about telling our story,’ he stated. ‘We must also be better listeners.’ The Muslim community ‘is a subtle world we don’t fully — and don’t always attempt to — understand,’ he wrote. ‘Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative.’ He acknowledged that the term strategic communication was ‘probably here to stay,’ but argued that it should be limited to describing ‘the process by which we integrate and coordinate’ government communications programs.”


American politics have become so divisive that we seem to have lost the art of listening. Mullen’s advice is good at home as well as abroad. We can accomplish much more if we are respectful and learn to really communicate with one another. We don’t have to agree on every subject, but we’ll make a lot more progress when understand each others’ position and seek for a common way forward.

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