U.S. Capitol Visitor Center – Room HVC 201
Information Operations: Successes and Failures
(Robert Reilly, September 6, 2013)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Robert R. Reilly has been on the board of Westminster since its founding. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Oﬃce of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006). He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade. Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad.
Other Westminster talks
He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:
The Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)
Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong (February 9, 2016)
Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)
The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)
I will start with a couple of essentials. I, by the way, was engaged in the war of ideas both in the Voice of America for some years and the Defense Department. I developed a couple of elementary rules regarding a war of ideas. Do not go into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with. Do not go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea.
Wars of ideas are fought by people who think. People who do not think are influenced by people who do. That should invite you to consider which audience you want to aim your public diplomacy at. Should it be a large, youth audience with pop music? Should it be to the people in the society you are trying to reach who, because they are thinking intellectuals, form the intellectual tenor of that society?
Successful information operations understand the audience, have the right message and the right format, and have the means to deliver the message to the media used by the audience to receive its information. Miss any of these links and you have a failed information operation. You can have the medium and not the message, or you can have the message and not the medium, or you could be without both.
Now, we know from every national strategy for combating terrorism that the objective in the long run is winning the war on terror, [which] means winning the war of ideas. I often refer to the statement by Akbar Ahmed, Chair of the Islamic Studies Department at American University, took a six month tour throughout the Islamic world and during that tour he reflected, quote, “I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew that the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side,” meaning our side, “had already lost the war,” unquote. How could this be?
Well, what I am going to do today is reflect briefly on what we have done that has worked, on what has not worked, and an overall view on what we have failed to do altogether. I have no interest in being autobiographical, but I have been asked to speak on information operations, successes and failures, and I interpret that term very broadly to mean public diplomacy, war of ideas, and I am invariably drawn to some operations in which I have been personally involved.
There were several huge failures and some tiny successes. I have not spoken of some of these experiences before because they are almost personally too painful to relate. I recount them now only in the hope the lessons from them can be learned and related to the current conflicts in which we are involved. Sometimes the mission was right but the execution was wrong. Sometimes the mission itself was misconceived. At other times there was not even a mission to execute, just avoid.
Now, I will not dwell at length upon my experiences at the Voice of America where I worked for ten years, my last year as its director, but I had thought this in 2001, 2002, this will be the VOA’s finest hour as prior it had been in 1942 when that organization first went on the air in Germany and started broadcasting to Germany, so I thought our 12-hour a day Arabic service would have a key role to play in this new war of ideas.
Certainly, that service needed revamping and improved programming and it needed to get off long way and on to medium way because people in the Middle East for the most part no longer listen to their long way radios. Now, imagine my surprise when the Broadcasting Board of Governors decided to eliminate that service of the Voice of America, which broadcast interviews, reviews, editorials of official U.S. policy, discussion programs, and so forth and replace it with a youth pop station called Radio Al Sawa that broadcast 24/7 and at the beginning- all music but for two, five-minute news breaks, with Eminem, Britney Spears, and J-Lo, along with Arabic pop music. The lyrics had to be changed for broadcast of course, because they were so offensive to Muslim audiences. This, in a time when we were at war. That was the start of the transformation.
Now, it is interesting that I have the occasion after this transformation to meet with one of the most important Saudi princes, and I said without prejudice to him, I asked question, “What do you think of Radio Sawa?” He said, “It is not good, it is not bad, it is just what it is.” He said, “Now my father, King Faisal, loved the Voice of America.” He always listened to it. He had memorized the broadcast times, so when he went into the dessert, which he often did, he would take the shortwave radio with him because he did not want to miss a program. He said, “I too, of course, used to listen to it, the Voice of America. Of course, I do not listen to Radio Sawa.”
Well, who cares if the King listens? Might that not be an influential audience you would try to reach with your broadcasting and explanations of your policy?
Regardless, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar in Yemen said that, “If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it and any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by the intellect. However, the language of the intellect is ideas not pop music. The war of ideas cannot be fought with the battle of the bands. The objective is to reach people who think.”
On the other hand, Voice of America did get something right in respect to Afghanistan. The first Minister of Information of Afghanistan approached me when I was VOA Director and said, ‘We have no means of reaching our own people and Afghanistan is being bifurcated by broadcasting coming in from Pakistan on the one side in Pashto and Iran on the other side. We have no national voice to reach the people of Afghanistan. Can you give us some giant transmitters that would allow us to do that and in turn, we will give you the space and the license to build your own giant transmitter.’
This being important because the people of Afghanistan received their news and information primarily through radio, which they still do today. I am happy to say that thanks to the generosity of the Defense Department from where we got the more than $10 million to build these was accomplished.
At the same time, the Broadcasting Board of Governors said, let us do a 24/7 news channel in Pashto and Dari. And so we combined the Voice of America Afghan service with that of RFE/RL and created that 24/7 service. This as it should be. These were moves in the right direction.
However, ten years later one worries what is the substance of the broadcast? Ten years later there was a very upsetting revelation from the International Council on Security and Development located in Kandahar, Afghanistan. They conducted a survey in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces of one thousand males. These were Afghan to Afghan interviews, very early and well done.
What percentage of the interviewees do you suppose had never heard of 9/11? 93%. Ten years into a war and our public diplomacy communication had failed to convey to the Afghan people the purpose for which we were there. This would be like fighting World War II and not telling anyone about Pearl Harbor.
This same group did a survey of Afghan males in two northern provinces, Parwan and Panjshir, showed them pictures of 9/11, and asked them, now that you understand what happened there, do you think the presence of foreign forces in your country, ISAF and the United States, is justified by what you have seen? 59% subsequently said it justified the international presence in Afghanistan.
Even ten years later it was not too late what we were doing there. Now we are departing with many of the people of Afghanistan puzzled as to why we came in the first place.