The Pentagon’s Overseas Alumni Club
The Pentagon is using a key asset, foreign military officers trained in Defense Department schools, as a key public relations asset.
The Pentagon’s Overseas Alumni Club (TIME, May 9)
George Bush’s campaign to win hearts and minds overseas doesn’t just involve high-level diplomacy and Administration officials pushing the U.S. message on TV abroad. The Pentagon is also trying to enlist foreign military officers in the spinning. Each year more than 2,000 foreign officers from more than 50 countries are students at Defense Department schools, such as the National Defense University in Washington, and regional security-studies centers the Pentagon operates in Hawaii and Germany. Hoping those mid-level officers will happily promote Washington’s interests after taking classes in the U.S., the Pentagon for the past 1 1/2 years has quietly been organizing a program to continue cultivating them when they go home, a senior Defense official tells TIME.
The program is being run much like a college alumni operation. Pentagon officials tell TIME that a database is being set up to keep track of the foreign military students after they return. Websites and e-mail networks are being constructed to feed them U.S. policy papers. And the Pentagon hopes to organize get-togethers at which alumni meet top U.S. officials such as the secretaries of Defense or State in countries where they are traveling. The cultivating has to be done carefully.
Some foreign officers have been ostracized by their militaries for pushing the U.S. line too hard at home. But the Pentagon has already seen some success. When officials learned that al-Jazeera was planning a potentially damaging story about the U.S. military, Defense officials say a phone call went out to a Persian Gulf officer who was an alumnus. He put them in touch with a relative working at the network who got the piece toned down.
A brilliant idea if handled deftly. These alumni were already helping clear up misconceptions about the U.S. simply because they have direct experience. Keeping in touch with them is simply smart.
Historically, military officers trained in Western schools have been among the key modernizers in developing societies. Not only were they better trained in technical matters than most of their countrymen, but they have been socialized into the institutions-not-men mindset that is the hallmark of an advanced society and have first hand experience with freedom.