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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pentagon’s psychological operations, State Department and USAID’s information operations intended to influence local populations

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US News
The United States Department of Defense used it recently in Yemen and Pakistan. The U.S. State Department is using it right now in Afghanistan and Nigeria. The U.S. Agency for International Development used it in the last elections in Kenya. It’s been used in every American war zone over the last decade and it’s becoming an increasingly relied upon tool in U.S. foreign policy.

For the Pentagon, it’s part of psychological operations, or “psy-ops,” but for the State Department and USAID it’s part of their “information operations,” all of which is intended to influence local populations. This is not some sinister National Security Agency operation or anything as surreptitious as what the Joint Special Operations Command might cook up. This has everything to do with what Washingtonians and others have termed “ soft power” and the role culture and arts play in winning the hearts and minds.

For many governments – America’s included – these “softer” strategies (in contrast to the “hard power” of military maneuvers, sanctions, etc.) are being employed with good intention perhaps, but insufficient preparation, partnership or planning in a way that is strategic, sustainable and constructive.

Whether it’s a reality TV show on the Niger Delta sponsored by the State Department, theatre forums in Yemen’s fourth largest city, Hudaydah, sponsored by the Defense Department, or radio programs in Nairobi sponsored by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, the U.S. government is getting increasingly creative about how to use the cultural sector to do diplomacy, development and defense. Our government is not alone in this expansion of soft power, as governments throughout the European Union are sponsoring and spearheading similar initiatives throughout the Middle East and North Africa, for example.

There is a danger, however, if not done right, and peacebuilders and conflict prevention practitioners on the ground rightly argue that governments shouldn’t be in the business of exporting Western arts and cultural models (e.g. former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice funding the export of a Sesame Street-type U.S.-based program in Indonesia, which brought Elmo to Islamic schools) or expropriating indigenous practices for a U.S. agenda.

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