An article in the August 28 New York Times described a recent epiphany on the part of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. It seems that Admiral Mullen now “gets” a point Fourth Generation war theorists have made for years, namely that Information Operations are less what you say that what you do. The Times reported that

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has written a searing critique of government efforts at “strategic communications” with the Muslim world, saying that no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting…

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique…

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems…”

Right on. Given Admiral Mullen’s position, this could represent important progress – or not. Its significance depends on whether the JCS Chairman can think big, as should be the case at his level of command. Will the Admiral restrict his thinking to execution problems, or will he have the wisdom and the moral courage to tackle policy problems?

Execution problems are what the current American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is focused on. He recognizes that American troops in Afghanistan must protect the population, not “kill bad guys.” We need to be in the village instead of attacking the village. Fourth Generation doctrine suggests that the key to success (where it is possible at all) is de-escalation. I have not seen General McChrystal use that term, but it seems to be his intent.

However, if execution at the battalion and company level becomes the focus for Admiral Mullen, he will have missed his chance to make a difference. As JCS Chairman, his focus should be grand strategy. For future American success in a Fourth Generation world, it is at that level that his new understanding of “strategic communications” needs to be applied.

What it means is that America should adopt a defensive rather than an offensive grand strategy. At present, American grand strategy is offensive, or even aggressive. In effect, America says to the rest of the world, “You are going to abandon your traditional culture and embrace our new, “liberated” culture – Feminism, consumerism, hedonism, all labeled “democracy” – whether you want to or not. If we cannot make you do so with ‘soft power,’ then you will face our ‘hard power,’ our bombs, cruise missiles and Predators.” From the jungles of the Amazon to the Hindu Kush, everyone is to become a subject of Brave New World.

As the conservative political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote, the surest way to make someone your enemy is to tell him you are going to remake him in your image for his own good. So long as that is America’s grand strategy, as it now seems to be, we are doomed to defeat at the grand strategic level. That is true no matter how our troops execute a fatally flawed policy.

The policy we need instead, one that communicates a very different message, is a defensive grand strategy. The message a defensive grand strategy sends is simple: If you leave us alone, we will leave you alone. We will not seek to “remake” you in any image. How you live is your business, and yours only.

In the November 22, 2004 issue of The American Conservative, I laid out in some detail what a defensive grand strategy for America might look like in a Fourth Generation world. It is impossible to summarize that lengthy piece in a column.

My point here is simply that this is the central question – offensive or defensive grand strategy? – a JCS Chairman who “gets it” should focus on. His concern should be policy, not execution. If Admiral Mullen thinks he should now duplicate what General McChrystal is doing, he will effectively leave the office of JCS Chairman vacant.

The Times quoted Admiral Mullen as saying, “That’s the essence of good communication: having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves.” The question you have raised for yourself, Admiral, is what intent is right at the level of grand strategy? The world awaits an answer.