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Strategic Communication and the Management of Expectations
by Dr. Tony Corn
Whether in three months, three years, or three decades, the U.S. will have to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan some day. At this particular juncture, the Washington commentariat should be less concerned with the precise timing of any withdrawal than with the exact manner in which -- when the time comes - the U.S. can convincingly "declare victory and go home."
Contrary to a naí¯ve belief, actions rarely speak for themselves. The choice of a communication strategy determines whether a military build-up is perceived as a temporary "surge," or an open-ended "escalation," and this initial perception, in turn, determines whether a future withdrawal will be perceived as "mission accomplished," or "lack of resolve."
At its most sophisticated, strategic communication is the art of managing expectations of friends and foes alike in a timely fashion. If there is only one lesson of Vietnam that the Obama Administration should meditate at this point, it is that unexpected cascading effects can make the most seemingly-cautious incremental strategy unravel in no time. In 1968, it took only two months from the beginning of the Tet offensive (January 31) for a President Johnson, overtaken by events, to announce that he would not seek re-election (March 31).
While it is hard to quarrel with those who argue today that America's initial goals in Afghanistan have been met, it is still too early to heed calls to "declare victory and go home." If nothing else, the continued presence of U.S. troops on Iran's Western and Eastern borders has a nice way of "concentrating the mind" of the ayatollahs.
But it is not too early to realize that managing expectations over Afghanistan today is the most effective way of salvaging America's reputation (not to mention the President's own re-election) tomorrow. Irrespective of the future course of action in Afghanistan, the White House should not wait much longer before coming up with an "inoculation strategy" (as they say in comspeak) that will pre-empt future foreign attempts to equate an American withdrawal with a U.S. retreat or a U.S. defeat.