Pundits or Pentagon Puppets?
Sunday's New York Times features 7,500-word opus on the Pentagon's efforts to shape public opinion by influencing what retired military officers thought and said publicly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Macchiavellian initiative, to be sure, but a clumsy one from what I can tell.
The most serious of these allegations boil down to this: that the Pentagon established a quid pro quo whereby retired officers would get access to people and information in exchange for positive public commentary; and that some retired military officers stood to gain financially through their ties to private companies holding government contracts with the Defense Department.
On the first issue, I'm shocked -- shocked -- to see news analysts and commentators trading flattering comments for access. Such practices are hardly abnormal. But, there is something particularly unseemly about retired military officers playing this game in wartime. For better or worse, we hold these men and women to a higher moral standard. Their opinions are worth something on the air precisely because we expect these retired officers to know something about what's going on and to tell the truth about it. I know this is politics-as-usual, but I'm still disappointed.
Second, the Times article raises the specter of impropriety for the retired officers with ties to government contractors with business before the Pentagon. I don't know that this rises to the level of a procurement integrity issue; there seems to be little evidence on that point. But this certainly ought to raise major concerns for the media organizations that hired these guys. They owe the public a lot more due diligence when they pick pundits, and I hold them somewhat responsible here. I'm told these kinds of access-for-coverage deals (let alone the potential conflicts of interest) would be a firing offense in any newsroom -- and yet, these major broadcast news organizations ignored them. Why?
The article raises other issues too. The Smith-Mundt Act generally forbids the conduct of Psychological Operations on domestic audiences. I'm no expert on this law, and I understand from some commentators (including my friend Matt Armstrong) that it may actually be a dead letter. But I think the Act's original intent was sound -- to prevent propaganda efforts abroad from leeching into the domestic marketplace of ideas, where they might corrupt the public discourse in this country.
There is a legitimate place in warfare for this kind of activity. In describing the trinity necessary for a nation to make war (the army, the state and the people), Clausewitz understood the role of domestic public opinion. Political and military theorists alike have built on this understanding and elaborated on the role between public opinion and military success. Suffice it to say that this connection is especially important for a democracy. There's a fine line, however, between rallying the support of the people for a cause, and deceiving the people in order to maintain their support. I think Churchill got it right during WWII when he leveled with the British people while exhorting them forward. This initiative seems to get it wrong.
And so, we see the dangers of merging politics with policy. Today, unfortunately, good policies only advance when they mesh with good politics. And nothing goes anywhere anymore without an aggressive strategic communications campaign. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, this has led us to a perverse place. The administration no longer levels with the people, because to do so might sap support for the war. The Pentagon follows the White House's lead. Good policy matters, but only to the extent that it can be sold politically. The end result is a political echo chamber, where all sides shout at each other and no one really knows what's happening, because no one trusts the administration reporting coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
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