Public diplomacy and the war on terrorism

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the propaganda, or "public diplomacy," component of our ongoing war against international terrorism. In that column, I warned that our enemies would win if they could portray our worldwide offensive as a war between the United States and Islam.

That's exactly what Osama bin Laden did in his last, pathetic video in late December. A pale, gaunt bin Laden told his dwindling band of fanatic followers that the U.S. had declared war on Islam, and he urged them "to continue the jihad (holy war) action, militarily and economically, against the United States." Bin Laden's toxic video was broadcast throughout the Middle East without rebuttal, which is the main challenge for American public diplomacy -- how to disseminate our message in a hostile media environment. That's more difficult now than it used to be because of the Clinton administration's ill-considered October 1999, decision to merge the former U.S. Information Agency -- my Foreign Service alma mater -- with the sprawling State Department. For nearly 50 years, USIA offered one-stop shopping and rapid response for coordinated, effective public diplomacy programs and products.

Political and economic officers are at the top of the State Department totem pole and public diplomacy is usually an after-thought to be considered after everything else has been taken care of. And there's a question about whether the new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Charlotte Beers, a former New York advertising executive with no foreign policy experience, is up to the job.

Ms. Beers, who successfully peddled Head & Shoulders shampoo and Uncle Ben's rice on Madison Avenue, speaks of "branding" the United States like a commercial product. In a November press conference, she stated that a 30 percent conversion rate for Muslims (to our point of view) would be "a sales curve any corporation would envy." President Kennedy's USIA Director, legendary radio and TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, must be turning over in his grave.

One problem with Ms. Beers' slick approach is that most of her public diplomacy troops aren't advertising people; they're ex-journalists and cultural specialists who believe truth and openness are our best defenses in the world court of public opinion. In other words, they prefer to put out the U.S. message, warts and all, rather than to attempt to manufacture a new "brand" for us and our ideals, like freedom and democracy.

Congress is so concerned about the propaganda war that two powerful congressmen, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and the committee's ranking Democrat, Tom Lantos of California, last month asked the General Accounting Office to undertake an in-depth evaluation of our government's public diplomacy and international broadcasting activities. "The United States has a range of programs that constitute our public diplomacy efforts," Hyde and Lantos said in a letter to the GAO. "While these efforts have been galvanized by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to help fight the international war on terrorism, it would appear that the problem is too great and too entrenched to be solved by current efforts alone."

Hyde and Lantos asked the GAO to evaluate the impact of the State-USIA merger on how public diplomacy resources are allocated, and to report back to Congress in the spring. "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue should have such trouble promoting a positive image of itself and its policies overseas?" they asked. On the budget question, we already know that public diplomacy resources declined precipitously during the Clinton years, when funding for such programs, measured in constant dollars, fell by one-third.

In November, New York Times Middle East correspondent Stephen Kinzer lamented public diplomacy budget cuts during the 1990s. In Pakistan, Kinzer noted, the U.S. either closed or greatly reduced services at five American cultural centers. "The ideals, history and cultural vibrancy of the United States were taken off display for millions of Pakistanis," he lamented. "Now, thousands of young people live at fundamentalist academies where they learn nothing but how to chant the Koran and hate the (American) infidels," which is sad but true.

And the same thing is happening in international radio broadcasting. "Across the Arab world, where anti-Western propaganda is a radio staple," Kinzer wrote, "Voice of America broadcasts are barely audible and reach less than two percent of the population ...." Prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises the VOA, proposed spending $30 million on a new 24-hour, Arabic-language radio service that would be aimed at young listeners under 30 who make up 60 percent of the population in the Middle East.

But that proposal was blocked by ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who rammed through the StateDUSIA merger in 1999. Meanwhile, Congress continues to spend $10 million per year on TV Marti, a Miami-based station directed at Cuba, which no one watches. Go figure!

As a small, semi-autonomous agency staffed by specialists, USIA offered a full menu of complementary public diplomacy programs and products ranging from American libraries and cultural exchanges to VOA radio programs, and could respond quickly to foreign policy crises. Now, however, the remains of those programs are buried deep within the State Department's cumbersome bureaucracy.

So I reiterate my original question: Where is USIA when we need it the most? Answer: Nowhere in sight, and that's inexcusable at a time when we urgently need to counter a steady stream of disinformation and propaganda emanating from Islamic extremists in many countries.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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