02/01/2008 06:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Donald Rumsfeld's Soft Side

The former Defense Secretary isn't known for believing in public diplomacy. So why is he calling for a new US information agency?

"Rummy Resurfaces," announced a widely read blog item by Sharon Weinberger on Wired magazine's website last week. The reference was to a speech given by the former defence secretary at the Network Centric Warfare 2008 conference during which he called for the creation of a "21st century agency for global communications" to "engage in the battle of ideas" and "to promote the values and ideas that the free western nations believe in."

The blogosphere, with some exceptions, was awash with statements suggesting that Rumsfeld's proposal was something he had thought up since leaving the department of defence. In fact Rumsfeld has advocated a new US government entity to handle the ideological side of the "global struggle against violent extremism" (as he renamed the war on terror in 2005) since at least 2003.

In that year, marking the appearance of the Pentagon's now-declassified Information Operations Roadmap, which underscores the importance non-military programmes such as public diplomacy in fighting terrorism, Rumsfeld asked at a press conference on October 24: "[M]ight there be a need for some new element ... that could help the United States, as a country, communicate with the world on some of these important issues?"

Rumsfeld subsequently made repeated statements about the necessity of a new governmental agency that would carry out a hearts-and-minds offensive - an updated version of the United States Information Agency (USIA), which was created in 1953 to combat Soviet propaganda and abolished after the end of the cold war, with its functions transferred to the state department in 1999.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye defines soft power as "the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals." According to Nye, Rumsfeld stated in 2003 a propos of soft power that "I don't know what it means." Indeed, both personally and professionally, Rumsfeld is much more associated with hard power, characterised by Nye as "the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will."

So why does the ex-secretary of defence, with his reputation for cultural insensitivity (remember his tactless statements about "Old Europe"?), also show a soft side, expressed in his desire to have a modernised USIA play a major role in the war on terrorism?

I can think of four reasons. First, early on in Rumsfeld's tenure, the Pentagon's efforts to handle the war of ideas by creating its own Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) turned out to be a PR fiasco. This Orwellian-sounding entity, created on October 30 2001, was criticised by the media as a propaganda operation that could mislead the public. In February, 2002 Rumsfeld announced that the OSI had been shut down. This embarrassing episode seems to have taught the usually stubborn but media-savvy Rumsfeld that hearts-and-minds initiatives, if handled directly under his own roof, could turn out to be a very hot potato domestically and thus should be passed on to others.

Second, the military's efforts to outsource the propaganda war have been as unsuccessful - and ridiculed - as has the OSI. The controversies over the activities of the Pentagon-funded Lincoln group, which paid Iraqi editors to place articles in their newspapers - certainly did not improve the image of Rumsfeld and his generals. Nor did the disclosures that the private Rendon group was getting millions from the Pentagon to carry out "strategic communications" and secretive activities disclosed gradually over the years.

Third, all indications are that Rumsfeld, ever suspicious of the state department, does not believe that Foggy Bottom is up to the task of carrying out the war of ideas, an obligation it took up after the dissolution of USIA. "[W]hen the US Information Agency became part of the state department in 1999, the country lost what had been a valuable institution capable of communicating America's message to international audiences powerfully and repeatedly," he wrote in the Washington Post last year. The view that the stodgy, slow-moving state department is unsuited to handle public diplomacy, which requires quick reactions to the fast-moving world of foreign opinion, is widely held among right-wing commentators.

Finally, and most important, Rumsfeld and his successor Robert Gates - who is also calling for a new communications agency - are aware that the "long war" against terrorism is increasingly losing public support and that they and their department could be held responsible for its failures. They are therefore looking for those on whom to place the blame for the setbacks met by the Bush-dictated US military misadventures overseas. In the process they are pointing their fingers at what they claim is the lack of civilian support for the troops, including in the war of ideas. In this Pentagon blame game, the notion that the administration's policies have led to US failures abroad are noticeably unmentioned by its politically appointed leadership.

Indeed, if one reads between the lines of Rumsfeld and Gates's declarations on the importance of soft power, what they are in fact suggesting is that the US military has done all it can dutifully do supporting a legitimate American foreign policy but that US civilian propaganda (not the job of soldiers) has failed to do so. The propagandists, not the warriors or the policy they implement, are the culprits for US failures overseas. This view is what best explains the true nature of Rumsfeld's soft side.

Originally published in The Guardian.