Adm. Mullen Critiques US Communications Efforts

In an essay soon to be published by Joint Forces Quarterly, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized American communications efforts with the Muslim World.  He argued that what America does is more important than what it says.

Adm. Mullen wrote “We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.  I would argue that most communication problems are not communication problems at all.  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.  [US communications efforts] lack credibility, because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on our promises.”

Adm. Mullen cited the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War and humanitarian relief missions as examples of the type of actions that the US need to undertake to gain credibility in the Muslim World. 

Adm. Mullen’s observations are insightful.  When the US ignores Muslim concerns, fails to facilitate economic growth, inflicts civilian casualties or fails to protect the population from insurgents, it alienates Muslims and makes it more difficult for America to achieve its foreign policy goals. 

But it will be difficult for the US to change its behavior in some respects.  Although American airstrikes inevitably cause civilian casualties in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, such tactics have so far been the most effective way for the US to kill senior Al Qaeda and Taliban personnel, and it is unlike the Obama administration will abandon such efforts.  Protecting the Afghan population from insurgents is the centerpiece of the new American counterinsurgency strategy, but military commanders claim that they do not have enough troops to do the job, and it may be politically untenable for the US to significantly increase troop levels and maintain a large presence in Afghanistan for many years to come.  Foreign aid money for economic development projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq may also be tough to come by in the current economic climate as deficits soar and government spending is focused on domestic programs.

In essence, while Adm. Mullen emphasizes actions over words, effective action along certain lines may not be possible at this time.

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