Los­ing the bat­tle against pro­pa­ganda

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE APPLEBAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

In ret­ro­spect, the bat­tle lines of the Cold War — the West, NATO and democ­racy on one side; the East, the War­saw Pact and dic­ta­tor­ship on the other — seem ob­vi­ous and in­evitable. The out­come — the col­lapse of the U.S.S.R. — feels now as if it were pre­or­dained. But at many mo­ments in the half-cen­tury that the Cold War lasted, the bat­tle lines were far from clear and the ul­ti­mate out­come very much in doubt.

Cer­tainly in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of World War II, when com­mu­nist par­ties were still strong, it was far from clear that Europe would end up in the same ide­o­log­i­cal camp as the United States. The 1970s were another low point: In the af­ter­math of Viet­nam, U.S. al­lies around the world ques­tioned Amer­i­can lead­er­ship, demon­strated at Amer­i­can em­bassies and called for the clo­sure of U.S. bases.

The Soviet Union sought to ex­ploit those mo­ments of weak­ness. Start­ing in the 1940s, the U.S.S.R. cul­ti­vated a net­work of pro-Soviet news­pa­pers and jour­nal­ists around the world, us­ing them both to re­peat the fic­tions that the Soviet Union told its own peo­ple and to pass on con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the United States. The most fa­mous — the al­le­ga­tion that “the CIA cre­ated AIDS” — was started in a Soviet-linked In­dian news­pa­per and was re­peated by a team of East Ger­man sci­en­tists. It even­tu­ally gained cur­rency in more than two dozen coun­tries around the world.

Back then, it took two years for “the CIA cre­ated AIDS” to spread; nowa­days, con­spir­acy the­o­ries can be passed along by networks of bots and trolls in sec­onds. But even then, the na­ture of pro­pa­ganda had to be de­fined, ex­plained and framed be­fore it could be coun­tered. Some­one in power had to de­cide, in other words, that dis­in­for­ma­tion was a prob­lem and had to hire peo­ple to think about the so­lu­tion.

Even­tu­ally, they did — and not just in the United States. In the 1940s, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment cre­ated a covert re­search group, the In­for­ma­tion Re­search Depart­ment, that put to­gether ma­te­rial on the re­al­i­ties of Soviet life and qui­etly passed it on to politi­cians and jour­nal­ists across Europe. In the 1980s, the U.S. gov­ern­ment set up the Ac­tive Mea­sures Work­ing Group, a small in­ter­a­gency team that kept track of con­stantly chang­ing Soviet nar­ra­tives and came up with re­sponses. Even­tu­ally the United States would threaten the U.S.S.R. with sanctions un­less it stopped push­ing the “CIA cre­ated AIDS” mythol­ogy. There were ups and downs, suc­cesses and fail­ures. But in the end Soviet pro­pa­ganda failed to win hearts and minds, in part be­cause the United States and its al­lies pushed back.

Why does this his­tory mat­ter? Be­cause we are liv­ing at a sim­i­larly fraught mo­ment, in a time when international al­liances are in flux. Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion abroad has plunged in many coun­tries. Con­spir­acy the­o­ries have never been eas­ier to cre­ate and pass on, both abroad and at home. A part of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion right now be­lieves that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is a “Chris­tian” leader fight­ing against the Is­lamic State in Syria. In fact his gov­ern­ment re­presses re­li­gion and is not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the bat­tle against the Is­lamic State at all.

Yet at the mo­ment, there is no sys­tem­atic U.S. or West­ern re­sponse to Rus­sian, Chi­nese or Is­lamic State dis­in­for­ma­tion. At­tempts to keep track of it are un­even. There is no group or agency in­side the U.S. gov­ern­ment ded­i­cated solely to this task. And, thanks to Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, it looks like there won’t be any­time soon.

De­spite a con­gres­sional de­ci­sion al­lo­cat­ing $80 mil­lion for this pur­pose, Tiller­son has re­fused to spend the money. This is most cer­tainly not, as Tiller­son’s aide R.C. Ham­mond has claimed, be­cause there is no plan to spend the money: Of­fi­cials at State have told me that dis­cus­sions on the is­sue are well ad­vanced. Nor is it be­cause State doesn’t have the ca­pac­ity to spend it, or be­cause the depart­ment has too many bu­reau­crats. From the be­gin­ning, the plan was al­ways to cre­ate a small in­ter­nal group to spend a large chunk of the money out­side the depart­ment and out­side the gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple sup­port­ing Rus­sian-lan­guage me­dia, which can de­bunk myths told in the Rus­sian me­dia far bet­ter than out­siders could.

The real rea­son is be­cause we don’t have a pres­i­dent like Harry S. Tru­man, Ron­ald Rea­gan or, frankly, even Jimmy Carter in the White House. We don’t have a pres­i­dent, and there­fore we don’t have a sec­re­tary of state, who wants to stop con­spir­acy the­o­ries, pro­mote democ­racy, bol­ster al­liances and de­fend Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion abroad. In­stead of a pres­i­dent who iden­ti­fies for­eign dis­in­for­ma­tion as a prob­lem that needs a so­lu­tion, we have a pres­i­dent who thinks it serves his in­ter­ests. If this were the Cold War, in other words, we would be poised to lose.

We don’t have a pres­i­dent, and there­fore we don’t have a sec­re­tary of state, who wants to de­fend Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion abroad.

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