I started this paper a couple of weeks ago. As I began writing, it became readily apparent that this subject was going to require more than one effort. In fact, after sharing with a dear colleague, her suggestion was to break up the following 25-plus pages into installments. This paper, an addition to our overall Strategy for the Levant and its extremist/geo-political challenges is an overview of some of the salient points to an anti-Extremist communication strategy as well as some recommendations to the overall Levant situation. Today’s edition is also more focused on an overview and the 1st topic (Narrative) of the 9 topics noted in the read ahead sent out in November. Addressing the rest of the strategy will be accomplished by way of installments posted every few days after the Holiday break. As with the first papers about this topic I’ve included links to the 4 papers that have preceded this one for reference. They are here below. As always, many thanks for your continued interest and participation. What follows is part 1 of 8.
Hello everyone and welcome back to the CS (Communication Strategy) portion of our Syria/Levant Strategy discussion. It is appropriate that today is December 7th as that it is a day in US history that as President Roosevelt so eloquently stated, “Lives in infamy.” This simple quote is etched irrevocably into American History largely because it became the cornerstone of his now famous speech to Congress as he asked for a Declaration of War against Japan after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
His eloquent and passionate speech encompassing that quote became much of the Narrative that would evolve but never shed its key elements throughout the course of WW II. The Narrative, as the all important core of a communication strategy has been largely ignored in our current conflicts stemming from Extremists usurping Islam for their own selfish, immoral and barbaric reasons. A failed Communication Strategy has been, in my opinion why we are still largely flailing against these evil-doers more than any other single reason. Extremism is about individuals acting on extreme ideas—and despite Trillions of dollars—lives and resources expended we are still nowhere near eroding the “idea” of Radical Islam or as I prefer, Extremism. The bottom line here is that we must stop clinging to the belief that bombs and bullets are the whole solution and invest as fully in a Comprehensive Strategy as we do in the Kinetic effort. Even a comprehensive strategy is potentially less effective without an energetic and properly executed communication strategy.
As I listened with keen interest last night to the President’s Oval Office speech, my beliefs regarding communications, or rather effective communications were confirmed. Ineffective communications are still at the heart of our failings. What I heard as I listened intently was, as recommended in our earlier discussions, a more comprehensive approach but still woefully short of all that is needed. Part of the reason I did not hear all that I had wished for was not that a talented communicator was delivering the message but that the complexity of the problem is very hard to communicate. The bottom line here is three-fold.
First, in a beltway mentality so often out of touch with the reality of the world outside it, the obsession with the bi-lateral approach of Diplomacy and military options are the dominant voices.
Second, Western countries, our primary partners, are still, after centuries of misunderstanding the region, miles from actually “getting” the Middle East and the myriad of complex issues that underlie virtually all of the challenges regarding today’s version of the conflict.
Third, America and much of the West has developed a near addiction with the “sound-bite” method of news/information delivery. This is a tragic “at odds” methodology that may serve a US/Western re-election campaign or the “bottom line” of a News Agency but is an epic fail when communicating the complexities of the multi-dimensional problems regarding effective degradation of Extremist activity and State actors maneuvering for power in a part of the world “wired” 180 degrees apart from the West.
Now, as we move on to the CS (Communication Strategy) portion of what we’ve been considering as a comprehensive strategy, I’d like to first point out some of the key elements of a recommended Communication Strategy.
As I’ve noted in earlier parts of this discussion, I recently retired from the Army as an IO (Information Operations) practitioner. This does not mean that I have any prestigious background in Journalism or Communications. It does mean that among other aspects of IO, I am a professional at identifying appropriate messages, how to employ them towards achieving specific objectives and in identifying the appropriate professionals/ resources for accomplishing those objectives. I have also been fortunate to have developed and sustain relationships with some of what I consider the finest experts in contributing fields, like journalism, narrative and media analysis. Like many folks my age one of the most valuable life lessons I have learned is just how much I don’t know and the importance of listening to those that do. Much of what we’ll discuss in the following pages is based precisely on the opinions and expertise of these experts and on my past 9-plus years of experience.
The following discussion is also based on the strategy papers on Syria and the Levant that have preceded this one. The links are included here below so that everyone can easily refer back to them. In the past papers we’ve identified our overall objective as a “Rebalanced and sustainably stable Levant” which is achieved by way of 5 specific LOEs (lines of effort) listed below. This part of our discussion is about how we communicate in support of those LOEs. In the “read-ahead” to this paper I identified a few topics that I felt requisite to developing a communication strategy and they were;
1. Narrative, Narrative and more Narrative!
3. Relationship of actions/ observables to Communications
4. Cultural nuance as it pertains to a variety of Target audiences
5. Who or what are we talking to?
6. The 5 W’s of messaging
7. Evolving Communications to keep up with evolving situations
8. Why sometimes the “right message” is an action and not words
9. The critical need for the currently absent “clearinghouse” for US Communications
As noted above the 9 points/outline topics are included for this discussion and should further interest be expressed, we’ll potentially develop a “point by point” paper that details a phased strategy laying out the 5 Ws of what is discussed in this paper. There are lots of caveats to this discussion but “first things first”. Today we’ll hit the highlights of what I consider the 9 cornerstones of our Syria/Levant Communication Strategy.
Just so that we are all on the same page going forward; the overall objective of the Syria/ Levant Strategy and its associated LOEs (Lines of Effort) are as follow;
Rebalancing the Geo-Socio-Political issues in the Levant in pursuit of sustainable Stability
Narrative, Narrative and more Narrative!
Narrative (or rather lack of) is in my opinion, one of the three most tragically flawed aspects of our (if one actually exists) US Communication strategy followed by social media (collection, analysis and dissemination) and a whole of Government Information Entity/Agency.
As a an IO Officer, I learned the hard way that any Information Campaign devoid of Strategy, planning, resources and a compelling Narrative was much like the old camp race where runners tie their legs together and race. Yes, you can get to the finish line but you will work harder, go slower and likely experience more than one spectacular mishap en-route. In yearly deployments to Afghanistan 2009-2013, I slowly through trial and error realized increasingly improved results in IO campaigns as my skills with narrative improved. I now have had the good fortune to have become acquainted with 3 extraordinary experts regarding Narrative whom can speak professionally about the reasons that Narrative is an imperative and how it works. Dr. Ajit Maan, Dr. Patrick Christian and Alan Malcher, MA have become invaluable allies and mentors in regard to Narrative. So that I do not misquote or misrepresent their professional opinions, I’m including a link here to Dr. Maan’s Narrative Strategies’ blog where some excellent posts by all of the above can speak far more eloquently to many of the specifics regarding this essential Communication tool.
As Narrative pertains to our strategy, the bottom line, as noted by Dr. Maan is simply that we need a compelling narrative (story) to explain the meaning of our intentions and actions. As noted in my opening, the President in his recent Oval Office address was trying in a very short period of time to deliver the meaning of how we are or will engage the world regarding ISIS, or as I and many others prefer to call them, DAESH. Additionally, addressing DAESH in a region that is a veritable minefield of complex underlying grievances is even more difficult to explain. Fourteen years into this conflict regarding Extremism we still struggle to easily explain just what we’re trying to do and why.
Part of the reason that this is so difficult is that the components of clearly viewing our challenges are rife with social, cultural and geo-political nuances. The same words in English do not necessarily translate well to those speaking different languages in different areas of the world. This is true for both our adversaries and our Allies. Not only do “words matter” but so does culture. Another but equally demanding reason for clearly and regularly communicating our narrative is that even for people fully immersed in the crisis we now face, the issues are so complex that we must make every effort to keep everyone, Allies and adversaries alike, fully understanding of our intent and actions.
Storytelling outside the West is often culturally, one of the most important and convincing methods of effective communication. Even in the West, getting a good story onto the New York Times “best seller” list is also an art-form. Just having a name, resume’ and a track record are not enough. A good story must stand alone on its own merit. In our case, we must use our Narrative much in the same manner as did Aesop or Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We must use our story/narrative to make a point(s) in a manner that will keep the attention of the audience. So what is the “moral of our story?” What are the points we must compellingly make? How do we hold onto to our audiences? How do we help everyone understand such a complex problem set? These are some of the most important questions in developing our narrative.
Before we wade further into our specific narrative we must know also acknowledge another critical point. Even though we must have an over-arching narrative we must also develop multiple supporting Narratives that speak to Western, International, Regional and local audiences. Dr. Maan calls these interactive narratives and I defer to her expert opinion for further refinement of this concept. Supporting or interactive narratives are all related to the overarching narrative. They tell much the same or very similar story but in a contextually nuanced manner that captures/holds the attention of different but related audiences. The same story and words will not speak the same meaning to different audiences in large part because we live in the West and regional/ local indigenous audiences see the world through vastly different eyes. This point demands that the communicator of our narrative by all accounts should be the best culturally attuned messenger. For example, POTUS may well communicate our narrative overview to US and Western audiences but someone “on the ground” in let’s say Syria or Iraq and at the local level may well be a Mayor, tribal Chieftain, or a SOF (Special Operations Forces) team leader. How do these different messengers make the narrative understood?
For example, the narrative at the POTUS or Secretary of State level may sound something like the following (also note the underlined portions as that they are directly related to the 5 LOEs we developed in our plan):
The US, in pursuit of our own and our friends’ security and interests is in a conflict with Extremists usurping legitimate Islam as a tool of power. It is not only security that compels us to act but we, as a significant and responsible Global partner and acting on our inherent American values have a moral duty to act in defense of the helpless. Much like our partners, we realize that these evil-doers have nothing to do with Islam nor do their barbaric actions reflect the tenets of Islam. The terrors they inflict on innocents are continuing to do immeasurable harm to decent citizens regardless of faith, ethnicity, culture or region. They are evil, plain and simple and as partners of the civilized world we intend to pursue justice and stability in the interest of all civilized States and their citizens. We intend to continually increase our ongoing support for degrading the immense human suffering, support stability by way of supporting safe mechanisms for hearing grievances, aggressively pursue diplomacy as a key component of grievance resolution and most of all, pursue security by relentlessly targeting all Extremist leadership and support of Extremist organizations. We do not care where these evil doers hide; we will find them, destroy them and effectively build capacity for all responsible partners that support our efforts. We realize that this effort will not be accomplished quickly or without the pain of financial and human sacrifice. It is though, our moral responsibility to act and support all those that share our concerns.
A supporting/interactive narrative at the Regional level might be communicated by a forward Military commanders, regional diplomats or high profile US citizens coordinating HA (humanitarian aid) such as USAID or recognized NGOs. It will by default speak to the narrative spoken by POTUS but be nuanced to “connect” to a regional audience. It may sound something like (again, please note the underlined portions that relate to our 5 LOEs):
We Americans and Allied partners, along with our regional partners are continually cementing all available regional partnerships in pursuit of eradicating the evil of an extremist and wholly discredited movement that is attempting to hijack one of the world’s great religions for their own evil purposes. Here in the region, we daily see both the grave results of evil as well as the true courage of responsible partners banding together for the most noble of causes, the eradication of evil and the relief of human suffering. The reasons we support these partnerships is complex but two of the most important reasons are; first, we and the responsible people and states of the region can no longer stand by while evil destroys the lives of innocent people and secondly, everyone, not just those in the region suffer from the effects of catastrophic instability. Again, the comparison to World War II is relevant; no one in the world is safe from the effects of allowing the evil of DAESH or their ilk to flourish.
Every day, the partnership between Western and regional partners grows stronger and the physical strength and emotional draw of DAESH weakens. This is always the case when good and decent States and citizens band together against evil. It is easy to see the corollaries between today’s anti-Extremist efforts here in the Levant and the coalition of global powers that eradicated the evil of Nazi led evil ideology during the Second World War Honorable and decent citizens regardless of race, culture or citizenship are today combining their courageous efforts to once again destroy evil.
We also regularly see that even with the destruction of evil and States that support it that there will be much work to be done in building a stable regional foundation that will prevent further attempts of evil-doers to establish a foothold for their selfish interests. We have no illusions that this will be easy and know all too well how many challenges there are regarding grievances, some spanning millennia.
Part of our combined efforts in building an enduring foundation of stability will be to support any and all responsible mechanisms that provide for hearing and resolving grievances. We also realize that no mechanism will or could ever exist without security which means pursuing increased capacity of responsible regional partners must be part of the overall effort. Included in our capacity building much of the focus will be on resources that guarantee security so that the most critical of our goals can be met, which is to mitigate the inestimable human suffering that has been visited upon innocents regardless of religion, culture or Statehood. DAESH, despite their illegitimate claims of statehood has failed at the first requirement of being a State, the care and protection of all its citizens.
Although many of the partners operating here in the region hail from Western cultures, we clearly and irrevocably support our local partners in their undeniably correct assertions regarding the failed attempts of DAESH to represent any legitimate aspect of Islam. We of the West, though not qualified to argue the religious aspects of Islam support unflinchingly the qualified condemnations of DAESH by the respected and recognized Religious authorities from around the Globe and especially here in the region. Again, and let us be clear, no respected religious authority regardless of Sect, recognizes DAESH as anything but evil-doers usurping Islam for their own selfish and barbaric reasons. These are not the words of the West but our trusted and respected Muslim partners that hail from region.
Finally, the eventual and certain outcome of the anti-extremist coalition will be; the destruction of Extremist capability, degradation of their evil and hypocritical ideology and a stable Levant that has for the first time in decades. a real chance at a bright and prosperous future on the world stage.
These two narrative examples must be supported with interactive narratives at the local level that speaks to each TA (target audience) be it tribal, local, village or otherwise. The key here is language, cultural nuance and appropriate trusted communicators. This local level of narrative has tremendous advantages because much of the narrative communication can be accomplished F2F (face to face) by trusted communicators whether SOF (Special Operations Forces), Coalition partners, trusted populace leadership etc…
The bottom line to interactive narrative is that each and every version must relate to the overarching and be delivered by the right messengers using the right language(s) and observing the most culturally nuanced approach. As you can see from the two examples above, both speak in different but supporting manners to the LOEs described in the strategy outlined in Parts I-III. They may not say so in the clearly delineated manner of Western Military Planning but there is little doubt as to the meaning.
Finally, in regard to narrative, we must tell our story often, at every level and with the best culturally nuanced communicator. When notable actions or events occur, we must repeat a version of our narrative that addresses the action/event and clearly articulate why that particular event/action speaks to our overarching narrative. An important note here is that by way of years of experience messaging in support of Operations, I found that there was no message that resonated as clearly as one that was connected to a visible action by the intended TA. For example: It was always much easier to “sell” Reintegration in Afghanistan after successful targeting of Taliban leadership. When “local” Taliban saw demonstrable success against their leadership they were far more receptive to coming off the battlefield by way of Reintegration than before their leaders were targeted.
As a brief summary note to the Narrative discussion I would like to add that the bottom line to Narrative in a comprehensive strategy is that no one, Ally, foe or affected populations need be confused as to our intent. We must tell our story, tell it often, tell it to everyone in the most culturally nuanced way possible and we must highlight our actions regularly that are demonstrative of our intent and as communicated in our Narrative.
This wraps up Part I of the Communication Strategy overview and discussion of Narrative in support of that strategy.
More written work:
Syria/ Levant Non-Kinetic Strategy
Soft Power Part I
Soft Power discussion Part II
Applying Soft Power to the current crisis in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, Part III