In an angry world, keep burnishing US image

In the tense era of the cold war, telling the American story abroad was a high priority for the United States government.

Into captive nations where news was censored, the Voice of America (VOA) and other government radio services boomed programs offering news of the outside world and features about America and its policies.

Off big US government printing presses in Manila and Mexico City rolled magazines in a range of languages targeted for peoples whom Washington sought to influence.

US government reading rooms around the world were packed with students devouring American magazines, newspapers, books, and movies.

A stream of lecturers, dancers, musicians, and others were recruited to go abroad, to perform, and to talk about everything American from science and medicine to politics and journalism.

A reverse stream of handpicked parliamentarians, government leaders, newspaper editors, academics, students, and others, were invited to come to America at US government expense for visits intended to impress them with American achievements, values, and friendliness.

All this was done under the aegis of the United States Information Agency (USIA), a stand-alone agency of government whose experienced public-affairs officers, generally speaking the local language, were assigned to US embassies. They had special responsibility for cultivating local newspaper editors and reporters, and TV news directors and broadcasters. The aim was to at least gain access for the American point of view, even if it was hotly disputed.

But when the cold war ended, telling the American story became a lower priority. Funding got pinched off and USIA was ultimately abolished in 1999. Its functions were folded into the State Department. There, its emasculated remnants have languished in the shadow of diplomatic activities better funded and considered more urgent.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to world peace.

The threat of nuclear confrontation between the US and Russia receded, but ugly regional conflicts flared. Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait, and America went to war with him. Afghanistan became a base for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Terrorists declared war on the US and brought it to the American homeland. America went to war with Hussein again. It fretted about developing nuclear weapons capability in rogue nations like North Korea and Iran. Europe carped about American actions and policy and a wave of hostility toward America swept across the Arab lands of Islam.

Small wonder that a variety of think tanks, foundations, study groups, and advisory boards have been calling for a major new initiative to burnish the US image in an angry world. It's called public diplomacy, and it means reaching the publics who influence their governments, while the regular diplomats keep working on the governments.

The latest report came out last week from a State Department advisory group, chaired by Edward Djerejian, a former White House spokesman and Arab expert. The advisory group was mandated by Congress to soup up public diplomacy, particularly in the Arab and Islamic world.

It recommended spending a lot more money, the training a lot more public affairs officers proficient in Middle Eastern languages, placing experts and programming on Arab TV networks explaining US policies, and revamping a lot more of the exchange and cultural programs that the USIA used to run so well. It also urged the establishment of a cabinet-level special counselor for public diplomacy in the White House who would report to the president.

Then why not, one might wonder, simply recreate the old USIA, and have it headed by someone like the late Edward Murrow, its former director, who'd have the ear of the president?

That would probably be the logical solution: reestablishing an agency totally focused on public diplomacy, rather than running it as a sideline out of the State Department. But politics and bureaucracy being what they are, that is probably fanciful, so what the Djerejian panel is suggesting is probably the next best.

Two things need to happen. The first is a very substantial boost in the $1.24 billion a year presently committed to public diplomacy and international broadcasting (which represents about three-tenths of 1 percent of the annual Defense Department budget). The second is the appointment of a public diplomacy czar who would have input on policy as well as operations.

Some cynics argue that the problem of hostility to America is too monumental and impervious to any counteracting voice. That was not the case in the cold war, when an evil empire crumbled in the face of America's message of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as associate director of USIA, director of the VOA, and assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan administration.

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