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Does Gen. Mattis have a strategy for shaping the ‘media battle space’?

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Donald Rumsfeld served his second tour of duty as Secretary of Defense from Jan. 20, 2001, to Dec. 18, 2006. He is one of America’s most accomplished public servants. And he was arguably the best prepared secretary of defense, having not only served in that job before, from Nov. 20, 1975 to Jan. 20, 1977, but having also been White House chief of staff, America’s ambassador to NATO and a congressman, among many other successes.

He had also been a Navy pilot. He knew Washington, D.C., he knew the Pentagon, he knew Congress, he thought long and hard about the new enemies that had populated the world since his first tour as defense secretary and struck the U.S. on 9/11. His memoir of his life, Known and Unknown, is one of the best of its kind and will be read by serious students of strategy and military affairs for decades. He resigned after the disastrous (for President Bush) elections of 2006 and the setbacks on the battlefields of Iraq.

Secretary Rumsfeld had set about to transform the Pentagon and instead had to lead it into a multi-front war against an enemy of a completely new sort. There were stunning victories — the initial invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the patrolling of the seas against the transfers of weapons of mass destruction, the removal of Libya’s WMD, the promotion of superb leaders who became the “super-generals” who eventually won the Iraq War and made progress in the graveyard of empires that is Afghanistan. But there was not the sort of victory that Americans expect and, in the absence of persuasion otherwise, sour on pursuing when American’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are dying.

The left hates Secretary Rumsfeld, of course. Historians will find him an endlessly fascinating leader, like his boss President Bush and his friend Vice President Cheney. He is a patriot and will be esteemed for many things he did and blasted for much he didn’t.

In considering the nomination of Gen. James Mattis to be defense secretary, I am reminded of the optimism that came with Secretary Rumsfeld’s second nomination, when the looming challenges were not known, the shocks not absorbed, the thousands of lives that would be lost and tens of thousands wounded not yet counted, and when the ultimate success of keeping a second 9/11 from happening was so contingent (as it remains). The American military has protected the homeland from a mass casualty attack on the homeland since 9/11. Rumsfeld was the man who got the building organized for the long war.

One very valid question about Secretary Rumsfeld’s record — one I raised with him on air when he was in office and in extensive interviews since he left office a decade ago — is why he did not communicate with the public more often than he did or in greater detail when he did about the war, the enemy and the challenges we faced as a nation.

Secretaries of defense shoulder burdens beyond perhaps anyone except the president, but one of their tasks is to explain and encourage a civilian population in the support of the military’s missions, especially in a time of war.

Most defense secretaries treat the press like Bill Belichick does: With ill-disguised scorn, when he notices them at all. Such a huge strategic mistake. The modern media battlefield is very much a part of the war against Islamist extremism, the long struggle with Iran, and part of the competition with our other “near-peer” rivals. And the person next best equipped beside the president to explain the war or any other conflict is only rarely seen doing so by the public.

Every memoir by every modern public official I have ever read talks in retrospect about the importance of public opinion, about the need to persuade and reach out, encourage and cajole. Now in the new media era the “media battle space” is infinitely more complex, and a thousand commentators at home and ten thousand online voices abroad can and do touch and shape that battle space.

I don’t believe Secretary Rumsfeld thought much about that and his role in that specific part of the conflict. He confirmed that on air to me during his tenure and I don’t think the priority he assigned to persuasion of the public changed much. His media victories were early and almost accidental — a byproduct of his candor, charisma, obvious intelligence and controversies which in the early years of the war saw the public side with him.

His effectiveness at persuasion of the public, like that of any elected or appointed official, grew less with longer tenure, pushed along south by cynicism among the public fueled by a hostile press corps and a war gone wrong for long stretches of time. The secretary did not do much in the way of sustained effort to persuade the public about how and why the war was being waged. Perhaps the president did not want him to.

Secretary Robert Gates arrived and, as with Secretary Rumsfeld, we got the same approach to persuasion of the public: A few interviews here and there, some pressers, speeches to safe groups and occasional appearances before Congress. Ditto for all of Secretary Gates’ successors on the subject of the Great War of Our Time as former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell rightly calls it in the title of his memoir. Thus a war waged largely in terse, uncomfortable bursts of data by the senior officials charged with its conduct. There is no sustained strategy to encourage and educate the American citizenry of the rightness of what we are doing or even the specifics of what we are doing.

“The civilian leader of America’s best-in-the-world military just doesn’t have time for public relations,” defenders of this record would say. But the counter is that all of these leaders are, with their reticence, forfeiting a large and strategically important part of the global battle with the worst regimes and non-state actors. If the president and the secretary of defense don’t explain the war, how it is going, where it is going, what to expect and how to support the troops fighting it, who will? Effectively, at least?

And thus to Gen. James Mattis, famously not fond of talking to the political mass media, engaging with them on the record, or blessed with deep wells of patience for dumb civilians, especially dumb reporters. His confirmation hearings won’t be a preview of whether or not he will take on the challenge of shaping the media battle space like he would any other area of conflict. The hearings are something he has to do.

What he will want to do about encouraging the public’s understanding of the enemies the military faces — now that’s an interesting question. It’s a new challenge for strategists. Sun Tzu didn’t write much about Facebook and Twitter, Rachel Maddox and Wolf Blitzer, Tom Ricks and Dexter Filkens embedded, retired general officers everywhere offering color commentary, 1.2 million active duty troops and 800,000 reservists with Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds.

Except he did. “One need not destroy one’s enemy,” Sun Tzu observed. “One need only destroy his willingness to fight.”

In 2017 and beyond, preserving and strengthening that “willingness to fight” is a part of any American grand strategy. Thus the secretary of defense’s plan to engage the American and foreign press in a way to preserve and strengthen that willingness will be extremely interesting to watch, even as it is critically important that, however Gen. Mattis decides to go about it, he succeed in his tactics.


This column was originally posted on


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