A cold-war tool for the terror era

Some people argue that the war on terrorism is a war between Islam and Christianity. But actually, the war that will do much to determine the future of terrorism is the war between Islamic extremists and Islamic moderates.

This is a war of worldwide scope, played out not only in the Middle East but in lands from Indonesia to Pakistan, and such European countries as Spain and France and Germany, where sizable Muslim communities are beset by rising Islamic radicalism.

The United States, primary target of Islamic terrorism, has a major stake in the outcome of this war. If moderation is the victor, political and economic freedom will flourish and extremism will wither. If moderation does not prevail, terrorism will become emboldened and even more dangerous.

The US cannot stand aloof from this civil war between Muslims. One of its principal weapons in aiding the moderate cause is public diplomacy, our bureaucratic term for better explaining US motives, policies, and democratic ideals to an often skeptical audience.

Public diplomacy is currently not going well for the US, partly because of such horrors as the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some American soldiers, but also because it is not getting the attention or the resources that it needs.

It took a further hit last week when Margaret Tutwiler, the seasoned public affairs specialist and diplomat brought in to head public diplomacy at the State Department, announced her pending departure June 30. Ms. Tutwiler followed the short-lived tenure in that job by Charlotte Beers, a New York advertising executive.

Tutwiler's resignation will mean another time-consuming managerial restructuring in the midst of all the uncertainties of a presidential election.

There are, however, a couple of relatively immediate opportunities for action on the public diplomacy front.

First, in Iraq, Ambassador John Negroponte is about to preside over a new American embassy in Baghdad.

It may have a staff as big as 5,000. That will mean political officers and economic specialists and military attachés and a host of other advisers and operatives. Let us hope that several hundreds of them will be public affairs veterans familiar with the culture of Iraq, comfortable in the language - experts at working with media, who can engage Iraqis in constructive dialogue.

Second, the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington will soon make recommendations for more effective ways of dealing with terrorism.

They ought to make a strong pitch for funding and attention to public diplomacy that would counter the negative image of America promoted by radical Islam. Military readiness, improved intelligence, home defense, are all areas for discussion as we look to cope with the current threat.

But of equal concern for us in the Islamic world should be the generation-in-waiting whose views of the West are yet to be formed. They deserve to learn about America with an open mind, not through a hate-clouded lens.

In the cold war era, the United States Information Agency did a yeoman job of telling America's story abroad. Its magazines, in many languages, reached masses. Its broadcasts penetrated areas where truthful information was little known. Its public affairs officers, stationed in capitals around the world, engaged in discussion with local journalists, parliamentarians, university professors. Its libraries of American books and films were packed with curious students. Exchanges brought prominent Americans to these countries, and community leaders from them were sent to the US to learn about Americans as they really are. Many world leaders got their first impression of America on such exchange programs.

As the cold war wound down, so did Congressional support and funding for USIA.

Finally it was dismantled in 1999, its few remaining components subsumed under the State Department.

With increasing foreign hostility to the US lately, the need for USIA's discarded skills has become evident. In addition to brave soldiers and dedicated aid workers, we need public diplomacy "boots on the ground" practitioners who can wage a campaign of words and ideas with inquiring listeners. We need funding for increased broadcasting, especially television, in targeted countries. We need a resumption of large scale exchange programs.

Even with the need for vigilance against terrorism, we need to restore the flow of foreign students to American universities, which is in sharp decline. Public support and private-sector funding for some of these programs is there.

If it is politically unfeasible to revive the agency itself, it should not be impossible to create a structure that would replicate many of its functions. The challenges of the day demand it.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was associate director of USIA and director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration.

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