Congress's Misbegotten Plan To Silence America's Voice

By , a former US career diplomat, is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

THE Republican Congress is about to decimate the government's public diplomacy agency, slashing its budget by more than 30 percent in two years, with more cuts each year until 2000, and depositing its remains in a State Department already staggering from its own cuts.

Probably no government agency can be immune from reductions if the US deficit is ever to be reined in, but the drastic surgery planned for the US Information Agency (USIA) over the next two years would:

* Reduce exchanges, including Fulbright scholarship exchanges so warmly praised by President Clinton at Senator Fulbright's funeral a few months ago, by as much as 44 percent.

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* Force more than 20 of 47 Voice of America language services off the air.

* Close down more than 20 USIA field posts and their information centers.

* Wipe out as many as 2,000 of the agency's personnel - already reduced by 868 slots over the past three years.

What is behind such devastation? Misinformation for one thing. According to ex-Secretaries of State James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, USIA was a creature of the cold war, and since that war is over, we don't need it anymore.

In 1953, President Eisenhower set up USIA as an independent agency. He realized that while its information and cultural programs must be well-coordinated with our foreign policies, its involvement with private-sector exchanges and the credibility of the Voice of America would both be strengthened if there was some distance between these activities and the State Department.

As a former legislative assistant to USIA co-founder, Sen. H. Alexander Smith, I know that helping the US oppose the Soviet Union in the cold war was not his only concern. Senator Smith realized that for the long pull, the US needed to tell its story to the world, encourage other countries to move toward democracy, and make sure our culture, society, and foreign policies were understood as widely as possible. It is a historical error to view USIA as simply a cold-war weapon.

Does Congress really believe that with the end of the cold war the world is no longer a dangerous place and that US interests no longer need to be protected? Are we truly prepared to rely solely on Hollywood, CNN, and data bases to eliminate misunderstanding and explain ourselves to a skeptical and often hostile world?

Smith envisioned an agency dedicated not primarily to articulating what the American people were against in the world, but what we are for - whether promoting democracy and human rights, trade and investment liberalization, or nuclear nonproliferation.

There is still plenty of hard work for public diplomacy and the small corps of language-fluent officers of USIA who develop deep contacts in societies crucial to US interests.

One of our government's smallest agencies, USIA practiced privatization long before either Speaker Newt Gingrich or Vice President Al Gore hit on the concept. Small USIA grants have helped seed far greater private sector funding of hundreds of nongovernmental cultural programs involving youth and labor exchanges. Thus thousands of future foreign leaders have seen America and had a chance to grasp its ideals and vitality.

USIA's entire budget including the VOA is less than the cost of one B-1 bomber. One billion plus for ideas; $30 billion for intelligence; and $270 billion for defense. Does this really reflect the values Americans stand for?

At less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our national budget, cutting USIA won't do much to provide the windfall savings Congress is looking for. The budget cutters argue, nevertheless, that moving what is left of USIA into the State Department will save a bundle. Yet Congress's own General Accounting Office has reported that integration would not save much, if anything.

USIA runs libraries, schedules visits by potential foreign opinion leaders, funds binational academic (Fulbright) scholarships and the (almost independent) Voice of America's short- and medium-wave transmissions around the world. Rarely does the agency make a move of any policy consequence without checking with the State Department. Why should it be saddled with USIA's routine responsibilities?

Any objective observer can see that while the missions of USIA and State are complementary, they are fundamentally different in practice. State: official, often confidential, contact and negotiation with foreign governments, as far from the public eye as possible. USIA: open, public, explanations of America to one and all, engaging the cooperation of universities and arts groups and staying in close touch with the mass media abroad.

For decades, Congress has insisted that USIA play absolutely no role within the United States. Its informational activities were strictly for the rest of the world - no propagandizing of the American people. With no apparent corporate memory, the Republican proposals would put USIA into the same bed with State's own Public Affairs Bureau, which is specifically responsible for explaining our foreign policies to the American people. Brilliant!

President Clinton warns that he will veto this mischief-making, slash-and-burn proposal from Capitol Hill, but the administration's focus appears to be on amendments that attempt to force the president's hand on Tibet, UN peacekeeping, North Korea, Taiwan, and aid to Russia.

Some opponents on the Hill speculate that Republican congressional leaders foresaw this and planned from the beginning, with copious crocodile tears, to withdraw these amendments in return for agreement to keep the cuts and reorganizational provisions - a bargain the White House must resolutely resist.

Only when USIA's lights are turned off, and its numerous efforts to tell our story to the world are terminated, will people wonder what ever happened to the America that was eager to spread the good word about its ideals and its hopes for the future to our friends, and especially to potential adversaries in other lands.

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