The current debate regarding U.S. involvement abroad features emergence of a troubling theme of isolationism. While attractive to some, the view is dangerously shortsighted and risks sacrificing the potential return on the investments made through military and diplomatic engagement during the last decade.
The argument for U.S. isolationism gained significant momentum with the killing of Osama bin Laden last month and the beginning of the final six months of U.S. military presence in Iraq. These events conveniently intersected with a global recession and heated budget debates on Capitol Hill to make an attractive option for Americans. Bringing our nation’s forces back to U.S. soil and reallocating wartime funds toward domestic issues seems logical and appropriate. Without the right balance today, however, the strategy leads to isolationism and stands to sacrifice more U.S. blood and treasure in the future.
While there are certain to be cost savings associated with a responsible military drawdown and withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year and Afghanistan in 2014, the U.S. must approach the transitions with a larger strategy in view. Rather than endpoints, the changes in the military operations should be seen as phases in a larger U.S. and allied strategy that features continued effort to engage and communicate with the populations in those countries and others. A focused, coordinated engagement and communication strategy that builds and develops relationships is vital to future stability and a coherent approach across the phases that follow military withdrawal.
The military operations in Iraq and and Afghanistan were complemented by soft power capabilities while simultaneously creating improved conditions for soft power advantage. Now, the changes sweeping the Arab world through the Arab Spring present similar opportunities for soft power without the investment of troops on the ground. Now is the time to increase involvement and leverage these opportunities, not withdraw to a stance that predates the modern global environment and sacrifices hard-won opportunities for success.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, understood the vital importance of persistent engagement and communication with the Iraqi leaders and the population. In talking about the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, he said the last unit in contact would be his communicators who daily engage with the Iraqi population and international audiences to strengthen relationships and build understanding of events and actions.
The value of communication engagement also is recognized in Afghanistan where commanders have asked for assistance through a contract request for industry’s best, full-spectrum communication practices and fresh ideas. People engaged there clearly see the need to understand, empathize, engage and transact with the people to help create the conditions for enduring success — conditions that will outlast them and pave the way for the next phases of engagement.
While some have taken a shallow, simplistic view of communication engagement and demoted the efforts to ‘spin,’ others correctly see the capabilities for what they are: vital components of soft power that complement and magnify other efforts, like diplomacy, aid, and even kinetic activities.
Today’s investment to foster democracy, familiarity and partnerships may also prove to be the most powerful, enduring deterrent to Islamic extremism. Engagement with leaders of fledgling or destabilized governments and their populations, helps to create pathways to stability, success and productive partnerships in the international community. By increasing connectivity and familiarity, we can decrease uncertainty and reduce the window of opportunity for violent extremists and other adversaries.
The Arab Spring is full of opportunity on both sides of the equation; the U.S. and its strategic partners can invest appropriately now while there is an opportunity to influence the outcomes, or simply withdraw and be forced to deal with whatever leaders, partnerships and systems emerge.
Likewise, it is not possible to simply approach the emerging opportunities from the current stance. The U.S. needs to develop a comprehensive, cogent national strategy for strategic communication and engagement — a mechanism currently absent. Although a framework for public diplomacy was published in 2010, it lacks the authoritative, unifying power to overcome ineffective coordination between government agencies that results in unsuccessful communication and engagement rather than coordinated efforts that deliver the intended outcomes.
As the world’s most powerful country, the U.S. has the unique opportunity to help shape the international community’s future. Its people, however, must resist the urge tip the balance too much inward in an isolationist posture and instead take the long view of success abroad with a commitment to sustained soft power engagement.