Daesh propaganda is good. It’s very good. America has been struggling along the ideological front since before 9/11. After 9/11, Secretary Rumsfeld famously graded our line of efforts there a D+. Unlike our psychological warfare approach in WWII, we’ve had several halting starts and stops since the GWOT began. Rumsfeld closed down the Office of Strategic Influence shortly after it was established. PSYOP support elements and military information support teams have worked under the auspices of SOCOM and JSOC throughout the fight, but never in a centralized capacity.
The latest evolution in our desultory approach is the reorganization of the counter-propaganda office at State, now the Global Engagement Center. Once confirmed, the small, underfunded group will be headed by its fourth leader in less than two years: the former assistant secretary of defense for SOLIC (Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict), Michael Lumpkin. The latest changes come on the heels of the recommendations from a panel of civilian marketing experts from Silicon Valley, including representatives from giants like Google.
ASD Lumpkin has a fairly good reputation within the PSYOP regiment. Unlike previous ASDs, he has taken an active interest in growing the force and its capabilities. He understands how influence and behavioral change are critical to SOF and UW efforts. In fact, losing him as the ASD SOLIC is probably going to hurt the PSYOP regiment in the short term.
There is no doubt that Mr. Lumpkin is going to do a great job in this position. The question is, is a former Navy SEAL the best person to manage such a highly specialized organization? SEALs are great at what they do, and ASD Lumpkin has an exemplary record, but strategic influence isn’t their mission.
Robert Gates is a man of singular achievements. Despite this wealth of skill and experience, we wouldn’t expect our president to appoint him surgeon general. Astronauts don’t head the Federal Reserve. Economists don’t coach the NBA. Is there a reason that Lumpkin, a SEAL, a “knuckle dragger” who isn’t a “social media guy,” was picked to run a small team who will be countering Daesh propaganda, primarily on social media? Now, the ASD is no slouch. He’s clearly tuned in. For instance, he knows that regional voices will carry more credibility for the majority of Daesh’s target audience. He is familiar with existing influence assets, and already plans on deepening the ties between public diplomacy at the State Department and the PSYOP regiment at DoD.
But shouldn’t the person running this team be an experienced member of the influence community?
I asked retired Colonel Jeff Scott, a former PSYOP group commander, for his thoughts on the matter. In the interest of full disclosure, if I were the president, I would have picked Col. Scott to captain this ship. With more than 30 years of service, he is one of the most experienced influence experts on the planet (and if not Scott, someone like Dr. Steve Tatham, if that whole citizenship thing wasn’t an issue). Scott concluded that this position likely required a political appointment and needed someone who had enough leverage in D.C. to be effective.
I’m sure that to some degree, that’s correct. Unfortunately, that’s not a good thing. Right now the GEC has less than two dozen personnel. If we need political appointments for offices that small, where do we put the bonafide experts? Isn’t there some value in having people with strategic influence and command experience making decisions and providing leadership to this 20-person team?