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Opinion

The State Department, not the Pentagon, should lead America's public diplomacy efforts

Why is the Department of Defense getting so much money and personnel to carry out the mission?

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Civilians should not just be the public face of communications. They should also set strategy and tactics that advance American foreign policy interests, in close cooperation with defense officials and military commanders. This is officially the role of the State Department, our nation's lead agency in making and implementing foreign policy. Yet, informally, resources drive outcomes, and the Pentagon has most of the money.

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Consider this: The $100 million annual price tag of the initiative described above is just one element of the Pentagon's communication efforts in one country. Yet, it is equivalent to roughly one-eighth of the State Department's entire public diplomacy budget for the entire world.

Perhaps the DoD's new Iraq activities deserve this level of prominence – but it is unlikely that a government-wide discussion of priorities ever took place. Whereas $100 million per year is big money for public diplomats, it is small change for the military, which spends $434 million per day in Iraq.

The State Department, meanwhile, must meet a host of pressing concerns ranging from short-term communication needs to long-term educational exchanges with about $800 million per year.

Personally, I hope US public diplomats are now planning a major communications effort to rebuild global confidence in our financial system – a task with long-term implications for America's economic health and our country's ability to advocate effectively for deregulation and free markets in the future. Yet I doubt they will have anything approaching $100 million to devote to this purpose.

Some argue that the Pentagon has taken a leading role in public diplomacy because the State Department has not been effective. But it's hard to be effective when your hands are tied by limited resources. Other problems remain, but a realistic budget matched to the mission is an important starting point.

The next president faces a daunting global to-do list. Whether the US seeks to diminish support for terrorists, urge allies to contribute more troops to Afghanistan, or address global climate change, the cooperation of foreign publics will be paramount.

Doing public diplomacy well means putting civilians at the forefront and giving them sufficient resources.

The Pentagon should play an important role in public diplomacy, but as a partner – not the principal. For its part, the Congress should give public diplomats the tools they need to do their jobs, and then hold them accountable.

Kristin M. Lord is a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Project on US Relations with the Islamic World and Foreign Policy Studies program.

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