America Has Forgotten How To Tell Its Side of the Story

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A "Sesame Street" character walks with Afghans at the French Culture Center in Kabul November 30, 2011. Omar Sobhani/Reuters

The free world is losing a cultural battle with the forces of extremism, a battle it continuously declines to fight—not in the streets, but in the information domain. The vast number of foreign fighters in Syria is a sign of this losing battle.

Because extremist Islamic ideology is not actively, forcefully and comprehensively countered, Da'ish (also known as ISIS) is becoming a magnet for the disenfranchised and a counter-establishment rally point.

The Asia Foundation's recent release of the 2014 report A Survey of the Afghan People, an annual survey with ten years of data collection, has some significant results related to the information domain. One finding shows a correlation between television ownership and a number of seemingly unrelated factors, including voter participation, liberal attitudes towards women's education and reduced sympathy for armed opposition groups.

The implications are twofold: 1) watching TV in Afghanistan has a liberalizing effect and 2) perhaps more importantly, cultural influence—adjusting perceptions and norms—is possible.

This is noteworthy because the United States has abandoned any attempts at coherently engaging in the information domain. Some in government doubt that it can be done successfully; some forget that we once had an entire agency dedicated to doing exactly that.

The U.S. lost a significant capability just a few years before 9/11 when the United States Information Agency (USIA) was disestablished in 1999. Created in 1953 to streamline and increase the effectiveness of overseas information programs during the Cold War, USIA was intended to "understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad."

At its peak, USIA, as the world's largest full-service public relations organization, spent over $2 billion per year to undermine communist ideology and garner support for America's view of the world. Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Defense attempted to fill the gap left by USIA's demise with the establishment of the Office of Strategic Influence, but over-reach into disinformation and covert deception doomed the nascent effort.

The United States Army Special Operations Command is on to something with its Cognitive Joint Force Entry white paper released in September 2014. While the term "Cognitive Joint Force Entry" is unwieldy and conjures images of psychic warriors as depicted in the 2009 movie The Men Who Stare at Goats, the white paper is a point of departure in a long-overdue debate about "inform and influence" activities.

"While the United States has abandoned the information battlefield since the end of the Cold War, Russia has refined its influence activities."

The paper argues that favorable opinions about U.S. efforts and unfavorable perceptions about adversaries reduce risk and improve U.S. and allied force's probability of success. However, the use of information and influence to set the conditions and shape context takes a lot of time, deep knowledge and significant skill. This requires proactive investment and action.

Therein lies the rub. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not shown itself to be adept at long-term investment or enduring proactive efforts that bear slow results. Quick wins achieved with minimal cost and risks, such as drone strikes and raids, are currently the preferred policy option.

However, to counter the hybrid warfare approaches pursued by Russia and espoused by China—as well as the advance of Islamic extremism—the United States must commit to slow-developing solutions like "inform and influence" operations and counter-unconventional warfare.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (R) during the Afghanistan Conference in London December 4, 2014. Andy Rain/PooL/Reuters

While the United States has abandoned the information battlefield since the end of the Cold War, Russia has refined its influence activities as part of its hybrid warfare approach. Russia began laying the groundwork in the country of Georgia years before its 2008 conflict by granting ethnic Russians in Georgia protected status and following up with a series of political and military actions that sowed fear and confusion. Invasion and a frozen conflict followed these shaping operations. A few years later, Russia refined its hybrid warfare game plan in Ukraine.

"The goal of western information and influence operations against extremist ideology must be to foster more complex thinking that rejects warped reasoning and false choices."

Now the opportunity exists for the West to conduct information and influence operations for ethnic Russian populations throughout Eastern Europe—potential future targets of Russian expansion—by highlighting the negative effects of these frozen conflicts. The harmful effects upon the populations of Georgia and Ukraine are clear and, if properly communicated, could be a strong warning to other ethnic Russians in the Baltics, Poland, and elsewhere who will soon be the targets of Russian influence operations.

A similar global approach must be pursued to counter the misinformation and deception or extremist Islamic ideology that leads to self-radicalization and jihad.

One area where the Special Operations white paper has it completely wrong is in its discussion of cognitive resiliency, defined as "internalized resistance which provides a reflexive rejection of adversary influence." It highlights psychological studies which show that individuals who hold extreme positions are more likely to reject opposing views than people with milder attitudes.

The white paper extrapolates from this research to conclude that extreme views should be established and reinforced. Chinese and Iranian government efforts to inoculate their populations against opposing influences are cited examples of sustaining cognitive resilience.

However, this approach will not work in the context of U.S. influence operations. Extremism cannot be countered with an alternative extreme view. A substantial body of academic research offers an alternative called Integrated Complexity (IC). IC emphasizes critical thinking to address cognitive laziness (black and white; good vs. evil; us vs. them).

Four decades of IC research indicate that a drop in IC (correlated to extreme views) predicts violent conflicts between groups and a rise in IC predicts peaceful conflict resolution. The goal of western information and influence operations against extremist ideology must be to develop integrative complexity in at-risk populations and to foster more complex thinking that rejects warped reasoning and false choices.

Cognitive science, social media and big data analytics, and the most recent Survey of the Afghan People, all indicate that cultural influence is possible. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command is developing and expanding special operations information capability. However, without a whole-of-government effort similar to the anti-communist campaign once waged by the U.S. Information Agency, aggressive extremist ideologies and powerful states will continue to defeat the West in the ongoing information war.

Captain Robert A. Newson is a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer who recently led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command. Previously, he commanded Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen and NSW Support Activity, a cross-functional intelligence operations command, and served as director of the Joint Interagency Task Force—Counter Terrorism. Newson is a graduate of the University of Kansas and the Naval Postgraduate School (with distinction.) He is a PhD candidate at the University of San Diego. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.