Saturday, March 22, 2008

"It's past your game"

I mentioned yesterday that back in February I went to see Jeffrey Gedmin, the president of RFE/RL, at CSIS and I wanted to highlight something from the transcript of that event. I left CSIS feeling very impressed with Gedmin which is not what I expected. In December he was quoted in an article that reinforced the sense that I had that the people running our strategic communications were out of touch. But after listening to Gedmin's talk I have to say that he does indeed get it and I was relieved to find that out. The quote below is from the Q&A. (Being a transcript some of the words need to be corrected.) The bold is mine:

"And I’m very weary of recreating USIA. And I’ll tell you why—again, I’m a
master of stating the obvious. This is coming from somebody who’s not of the U.S.
government—we actually are a 501C3, we’re a grantee of the federal government, we’re
funded by Congress, but we have a certain measure of independence. I think, I’ll put two
propositions to you. Number one, good heavens, government—whether you reinstate
USIA or not, must play a very important role in this ideas game, information game, war
of ideas game, obviously—okay—and we have to keep retooling, refining and improving
all the time, and that’s your job, and you’re doing a great job. But the problem, it seems
to me, again it seems like we’re stating the obvious again, the world has changed so
dramatically and radically through technology in the last five, and ten, and twelve and
fourteen years that the notion that even if you get the perfected bureaucracy with the best
people that it’s going to do the trick—it’s not. It’s past your game
, it’s like going from
college to pro basketball, the court shrinks, the guys are taller, and slam dunks aren’t
important anymore because they can all do it. Okay? I mean, it seems, I mean I had a
conversation once as an illustration a couple years ago. Dan Coats, Indiana senator,
ambassador to Germany, I was in Berlin, I was director of the Aspen Institute. Dan Coats
said to me, you know—there’s a piece on the front page, above the fold on the
Tagesspiegel of causalities in Iraq, trumpeting how many innocent people Americans
have killed, the data is not right, the spin they’re putting on it is terribly far informed.
And Dan Coats says, I need to as an ambassador rebut that immediately, I need a column
in the paper the next day, but the State Department won’t allow that—it’s too slow, and
all these checks and balances. So then, as I understand—Diane you can correct me, the
State Department, Karen Hughes comes along and corrects that, streamlines it, gives it
much more latitude to speed up the game, and so that’s definitely important. You have to
do that. That’s a victory, but it’s a limited victory—because before that paper even went
to bed the night before the blogosphere was on a tear verily spreading like crazy all
understating it, it’s the Daniel Kimmage thing. If you’ve seen Kimmages report on how
the Sunni Insurgents and Al Qaeda use the internet in Iraq, what do they do, they’re not
expensive. But they’re small, they’re nimble, they’re fast, they’re decentralized, they’re
fantastic when it comes to music, sound, imageries, symbols, and they’re on a tear.
They’re on a tear. So, reinvent government, and get the right people. It’s absolutely
essential, don’t misunderstand me. But we better starting thinking in creative and
complementary ways outside of government speed really does kill. And, in this case, the
best government institution in the world is just not going to keep up with this stuff not


subadei said...

Is he talking open source or privatized initiatives? Or maybe both? Sounds like it was a very interesting presentation.

We've been having a rather lengthy discussion about a somewhat similar subject; specifically the effectiveness, legality and ethics of private, non-state groups that utilize counter-propaganda and other informational methods. If you've got the time (the commentary is lengthy and so it's a bit of a read) I'd like your thoughts on the subject.

phil said...

Hey Soob,

Is he talking open source or privatized initiatives? Or maybe both?

I don't know, he didn't go into more detail. This comment came towards the end of the event so things were looking like they were about to wrap up. But what I took away from his comment is what I have been arguing for a while now, which is that the issue is not so much that government isn't doing things it should be doing, although that is certainly true. But that even if the appropriate gov't entities were given sufficient resources and were operating at an optimal level it still wouldn't be enough to effectively deal with the reality of the war of ideas that we face. The technological, social, political and economic transformations we are experiencing have created a situation where the "bureaucracy" as an organizational tool is incapable of dealing with the new forms. We see the establishment news and entertainment media struggling with many of the same issues. What those new forms of organization will be is something that we have to discover through our own entrepreneurial efforts.

I finished reading the thread you linked to a little while ago and have some thoughts that I hope to post sometime this afternoon or evening. I have to drive back down to the DC area later today so we'll see.

subadei said...

Excellent. Looking forward to it and I'll be sure to link to it. Have a safe drive.