Rainmakers?

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Finally, the promised soaker came this weekend. For weeks the radar had shown  conga lines of thunderstorms west of Cape Cod only to have them dissipate as they approach the canal. Every gardener knows that Boston weather reports don't apply to the Cape. Weather maps are useful. They can tell you which way the wind is blowing in the region but do not account for the local variables that create the microclimates in which we live.

So, I came in from the garden to follow-up on an intriguing blog post by Steve Corman writing from the 5th NATO SHAPE Conference on Strategic Communication.  He reports that the focus of the session in Izmir, Turkey last month was on 

how NATO and ISAF would handle strategic communication surrounding the draw-down of combat troops in Afghanistan in 2014 and lessons learned from the campaign to date.

It has been clear for some time that the average Afghan has no idea why our troops have been in their country for more than a decade. According to the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) study published in November 2010,

Many of the Afghans interviewed did not know about the events of 9/11, were unable to describe what democracy is, and were suspicious of international motives and actions.

Without ever having been able to influence how ordinary Afghans think about who we are and why we have been there, it is going to be tough to anchor a story about why we are leaving in anything other than the Taliban slogan "foreigners out!" This effective political message resonates within the Afghan historical context of foreign invasions, violence, destruction and retreat. It is sticky and coats all our explanations about why we are leaving with a residue of either our defeat in or abandonment of Afghanistan depending on the individual receiver's perspective. 

Given the situational context, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan General John R. Allen's embrace of the following three unmistakable messages is astonishing:

More astonishing still is the entire strategic communication approach revealed in General Allen's conference keynote of June 19, 2012. The discredited message influence model of communication lives on despite all the evidence in the theater and confirming research by the Consortium for Strategic Communication that it does not work. The message sent is not the message received in Afghanistan, in the region or at home where the average American (69% according to a spring New York Times/CBS poll) wants the troops out of Afghanistan. And, what seems to be our prevailing narrative of this war? Not surprisingly given our own readily available quagmire schema, Michael O'Hanlon says

Reading Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker or Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America suggests the prevailing narrative may reflect reality and that an entire stable of sophists armed with General Allen's unmistakable messages cannot create and substitute an image that denies that truth. 

Hannah Arendt criticized the image making American officials of the Vietnam era as not just thoughtless but willing to fabricate, to lie. According to biographer Elizabeth Young-Bruehl (2006) Arendt believed that:

Judging reflectively is a key characteristic of sanity according to Arendt. In that vein, Corman's post led me to two voices of sanity from the Iraq/Afghanistan strategic communication efforts who deserve a wider hearing. Andrew Mackay and Steve Tatham are British officers with a combined service of fifty years including Iraq and Afghanistan. Their new book Behavioural Conflict: Why Understanding People and Their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict (2011) is a worthy read. 

Tatham and Mackay are thoughtful men of action in the field. They know the particulars of these conflicts and are able to see what they look like from the perspective of the people effected.  Because they are empathetic, have extensive granular knowledge of the complex communication terrain and are willing to explore the scholarship, they can place the particular in relationship with the general and judge. They share their lessons learned from the communication efforts in the post 9/11 wars both in their book and an earlier available paper.

As one who practiced public diplomacy and believes cultural understanding alone is hard enough to achieve, I find their confidence that -- done right -- influence operations can change human behavior abroad optimistic. Recalling Harold Lasswell in a speech a few years ago, I said,

I am not making a case for justifying our post 9/11 wars by values that make sense to us and marketing them abroad like a brand of mushy peas or dog food in countries we do not understand. Nor is it an argument that absent a coherent political/militarystrategy, rhetoric can mask an uncomfortable reality and woo the consent of others. But, I also do not share the view that behavioral modification abroad is doable when informing and persuading are not.

I do understand what Tatham and Mackay are saying. They write sincerely and clearly. Like them, I find the work of Daniel Kahneman to challenge all I thought I knew about cognition, affect, and influence. The concluding chapter in Behavioural Conflict written by behavioural scientist Lee Rowland is a valuable contribution. This short RSA animation helps visualize the content of their argument.


I think it is hard enough to change human behavior in our own societies as those concerned with obesity or texting and driving or bullying can tell you. To argue that we can find the levers to modify complex human behavior abroad if only we can learn the right social science and summon the political will to apply it would suggest we can/should be rainmakers instead of weathermen. I have way too much dirt under my fingernails to trust that dance. 

What I do trust is Mackay and Tatham's willingness to enter into the realm of truth. What might have happened, they speculate, if all along we had communicated the following three concepts:

In their book (p. 90 - 91)they recoil from their insight quickly saying that what would have been understood and accepted in Afghanistan given their history and culture could not be spoken in the West. Yet, there is support for seeing honor and revenge as motivators in international relations in the powerful work of Dartmouth Professor Richard Ned Lebow.

in his award winning book A Cultural Theory of International Relations, (Cambridge, 2008), Prof. Lebow brings psychology and culture into international relations theory by contending that concern for honor and standing do, in fact, drive behavior in international relations. He demonstrates that decision makers like other human beings act on the basis of diverse motives: reason, appetite, spirit (thumos) and fear are the four he explores. 

Lebow's work helps us see that our own motivations to war in the aftermath of 9/11 could have been driven by a desire to restore our honor and eliminate our fear. Had we faced that, instead of fabricating an image that then obligated us to implement policies wasting years, lives and a fortune on failed nation building, we would now be capable of speaking the truth. In leaving Afghanistan we would only have to say, "honor has been served, we are keeping our word." We might even be believed.

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License