After the cold war, the US gutted its soft power arsenal and has yet to rebuild it fully. The Department of Defense stepped into this vacuum, and in many cases has done the job well. However, the Defense Department is not the right agency for this job.
In most circumstances, the Department of Defense (DoD) should not serve as the most visible face of the United States overseas. This is particularly true in areas where the public feels threatened by American power.
The Middle East is one area where polls show distrust of American motives and concern that America seeks to dominate the region militarily. Indeed, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey taken last year, 64 percent of Turks – citizens of a NATO ally – see the United States as the greatest threat to their country in the future. Civilians, including those who do not work for government agencies, are the best conduits for building trust with wary publics.
Civilians should not just be the public face of communications. They should also set strategy and tactics that advance American foreign policy interests, in close cooperation with defense officials and military commanders. This is officially the role of the State Department, our nation's lead agency in making and implementing foreign policy. Yet, informally, resources drive outcomes, and the Pentagon has most of the money.
Consider this: The $100 million annual price tag of the initiative described above is just one element of the Pentagon's communication efforts in one country. Yet, it is equivalent to roughly one-eighth of the State Department's entire public diplomacy budget for the entire world.