Needed: USIA's people-to-people message
SALT LAKE CITY — After a tough political battle, the US government is going to restructure its intelligence-gathering capabilities. What should come next is a tough battle to reorganize its information-disseminating capabilities to the rest of the world. The present system is dysfunctional at the very time when the US is engaged in a war with international terrorism for the hearts and minds of undecided millions.
For years, telling America's story abroad was the mission of the US Information Agency (USIA). It was at its zenith during the cold war, when the US and the Soviet Union confronted each other. As the Soviets poured out disinformation and clamped censorship upon its satellites, the US used a wide range of media instruments, including powerful shortwave radio transmitters, to rebut Soviet propaganda and convey factual information behind the Iron Curtain and throughout the world.
As the cold war wound down, funding evaporated and by 1999, the USIA was dismantled; its slender remnants shuffled off to the State Department. Now, USIA needs to be reconstituted or replicated. Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders broadcast their distorted messages of hostility toward the US over Al Jazeera and other media outlets throughout the Arab world. "Insurgents" in Iraq - the murderers who are campaigning against freedom - are masters of both the suicide bomb and the Internet.
While the Voice of America and other government radio programs still operate, they're underfunded, and many other former USIA programs have been abandoned. Public diplomacy, the art of explaining America and its policies to the masses abroad, plays second fiddle to traditional, government-to-government diplomacy. Able though US ambassadors and foreign-service officers may be, public diplomacy requires communications experts who have a passion for broadcasting America's message in clear terms, and who report to an entity whose sole responsibility is sculpting that message. The theme is basic, underlining the benefits of freedom and economic prosperity that America exemplifies. (There is a debate in Washington over which comes first, but actually they buttress each other).
Aside from the technology, what has been lost with the demise of USIA are programs that required people-to-people diplomacy. Seasoned USIA public-affairs officers in foreign capitals were on a first-name basis with leading local newspaper editors, columnists, and TV news directors. With that access, they could flow in rebutting, or amplifying, facts and arrange interviews or air time for visiting senior US officials. The USIA libraries those officers supervised were crammed with students studying American books and films and videos. Rising political and other leaders identified by USIA officers were sent on exchange programs to make their minds up about the US firsthand. A steady stream of students to the US was encouraged, along with a return flow of American artists, musicians, journalists, and scientists to lecture or display their skills.
The conventional wisdom is that it would be politically tough to recreate USIA and its lost programs. It was politically tough to reconstruct the US intelligence-gathering apparatus, but it is being done because the times urgently require it. The times urgently require that the US persuasively communicate its policies and ideals not only to doubters today, but to the next generation of Islamic extremists who must choose between the negativism of terror and the hope of democracy.
Different targeted audiences may require different nuances. Iran and Ukraine, where there is much pro-American feeling among the young, may warrant a different kind of programming from North Korea or the more militant lands of the Arab world. The US message must be conveyed to friendly countries as well. "Old Europe" needs to hear the American message as loudly as "New Europe." Latin America, Asia, and Africa must also hear it.
Government could get a significant assist from the private sector. There are international airlines with seats to donate for exchange programs; computer companies with outdated models that would bring impoverished third-world students into the 21st century.
Though the 9/11 commission focused primarily on restructuring the intelligence community, it warned that the US needs a vastly accelerated information program abroad to stop the "next generation of terrorists."
It's a warning worth heeding.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was associate director of USIA in the Reagan administration.