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William Fisher: Whither Public Diplomacy?

Whither Public Diplomacy?


By William Fisher

The expected nomination of one of President Bush’s closest advisors to lead America’s public diplomacy efforts has been met with cautiously hopeful skepticism by some leaders in the U.S. foreign policy community.

Among them is Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an authority on the Middle East. Prof. Cole told IPS, “You need someone who knows something serious about the Middle East publics and is willing to engage them on their terms. Ms. Hughes could be effective, but she needs to get good advice from non-toady Arabs and others. There is also the question of how much you can dress up the US support for Israeli occupation and annexation of Muslim lands or the US heavy-handedness in Iraq. PR without policy changes is most often not very effective.”

Another commentator, Adam Clayton Powell III, Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, told IPS, “Regardless of the merits of U.S. policies or the lack thereof, there is almost universal agreement that the U.S. has been woefully lacking in effectively stating its case. This is not a brief for propaganda, marketing or public relations: it is a simple recognition that the U.S. has not stated its policy or policy objectives clearly or in ways that audiences in most of the world can understand.”

He added, “There are only a half dozen or so U.S. spokesmen who have a sufficient grasp of the Arabic language to appear on radio or television in that part of the world. That means the U.S. is not even part of the dialogue there. Anything Karen Hughes does to improve that can only advance U.S. national interests.”

Ms. Hughes, a close personal friend of the President who is credited with helping craft and deliver the messages that won him a second term, will be nominated next week to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She will also lead the President’s campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East.

Ms. Hughes, the former counselor to the president, left the White House in 2002 to move her family back to Texas. She is a former Texas television reporter with little experience in foreign affairs.

Ms. Hughes will need to be confirmed by the U.S Senate. Her new boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said during her confirmation hearings before the Senate that she regarded public diplomacy as a top priority. At a subsequent hearing, she requested $120 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative for reform, $40 million for the National Endowment for Democracy to support the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, $180 million for Muslim outreach through educational and cultural exchanges, and increases for a wide range of other public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives geared toward Muslim publics, particularly young people.

Ms. Hughes will be the third occupant of the position at the State Department, which has been vacant since last summer. Three years ago, the president recruited advertising executive Charlotte Beers to publicize US interests. She resigned eighteen months later, replaced by Margaret Tutwiler, a State Department veteran who handled public relations for former Secretary of State James Baker during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Ms.Tutwiler also resigned.

In writing about Ms. Hughes’s appointment, The New York Times quoted unnamed State Department officials as saying, “the problem is American policy, not inadequate public relations, and that no amount of marketing will change minds in the Muslim world about the war in Iraq or American support of Israel.”

The effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, especially in the Middle East, has also been seriously questioned by a number of commissions, foundations and individual experts.

Late last year, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush concluded that the American campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was “uncoordinated and underfunded, and risk sending contradictory messages about US intentions.”

The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was critical of the administration and Congress for not adequately funding the communications aspects of the war on terrorism. It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between US and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant" security measures and ''excessive" visa fees. The report also offered a mixed critique of public relations efforts to promote the United States abroad.

Another group, headed by Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and now director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, reported, "Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels. What is required is not merely tactical adaptation but strategic and radical transformation."

The Brookings Institution, a highly respected Washington-based think-tank, also found U.S. communications efforts “not only under-resourced, but also lacking an effective strategic direction, particularly towards the Islamic world.”

The Commission established to investigate the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks also found the U.S. unaware of the need to conduct a ‘war of ideas’ alongside the ‘war on terror’.

The Commission said that, beyond defeating al-Qaida, the U.S. ”must defeat a radical strain of Islamist ideology that celebrates death and destruction.” The chairman of the Commission, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, testified to Congress that U.S. public diplomacy required a complete overhaul.

He said, “As much as we worry about [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaida, and we do worry about them, we should worry far more about the attitudes of tens of millions of young Arabs and hundreds of millions of young Muslims."

Mr. Kean noted that popular opinion of the United States has fallen sharply in the Muslim world, even in nations with governments that maintain close relations with Washington.

But the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, said that no amount of U.S. public diplomacy can succeed if America's actions around the world are unpopular.

"Our public diplomacy fails because it is derived from a failed foreign policy," he said. "Recent polls show that Arab respondents do understand and do respect American values. But they do not see American policy reflecting those values. They saw the horrible pictures of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. They read about the treatment of detained prisoners at Guantanamo Bay [Cuba]. So why are we surprised that there are harsh feeling towards the United States?"

U.S. Public Diplomacy currently has a number of components. Broadcasting activities include radio and television broadcasts to Cuba, through Radio Marti and TV Marti, radio broadcasts to the Middle East via Radio Sawa, television broadcasts to the Middle East through its Arabic satellite channel, Al Hurra, and broadcasts to Iran in Persian. Student and cultural exchanges are also important parts of the effort, though the numbers of foreign students attending U.S. universities has declined sharply because of security concerns that have resulted in visa delays and denials. Prospective students from the Middle East and South Asia have said they are also concerned about American discrimination against Arabs and other Muslims.

Al Hurra, the Department’s Arabic-language TV voice in the Middle East, has attracted a relatively small audience when compared with the more popular satellite channels, Al Jezeera and Al Arabia. Radio Sawa is widely listened to by young people in the Middle East, reportedly because of its pop music content.

The State Department’s broadcasting activities are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), established when the Voice of America was discontinued.

In a separate development, a bipartisan bill designed to boost U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad has been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill, which proclaims that the promotion of democracy, freedom, and fundamental rights is an essential element of U.S. foreign policy, seeks to strengthen the U.S. ability to promote democracy in a number of ways. It would establish a new office of Democracy Movements and Transitions at the U.S. Department of State and separate regional democracy hubs at several embassies abroad.

The bill would also create a democracy promotion advisory board to provide outside expertise to the government, authorize $250 million in increased funding for democracy promotion over two years, require an annual report on democracy to include action plans to promote democracy in nondemocratic countries, and provide training and incentives for State Department personnel in the promotion of democracy.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. In the House, it was introduced by
Representatives Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.

*************

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. His weblog is THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BILL FISHER (http://billfisher.blogspot.com/)

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