Bring back USIA, and let America tell its story

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, a group of Arab graduate students met in Washington to analyze the situation. These were intelligent, sophisticated people. All had lived and studied in the US for some time, immersed in its customs and culture. Their conclusion was that the crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon was all a conspiracy against the Arabs, masterminded by Israel.

After the Dec. 13 airing of the notorious bin Laden tape, which caught him reveling in the slaughter of innocent Americans, some viewers in the Arab world were shocked, but others dismissed the tape as a US fabrication. A six-column headline in The New York Times said: "Videotape Is Unlikely to Change the Minds of Arabs Hostile to America."

What does it take to make such skeptics face, and accept, the facts? What does it take for the United States to disabuse them of their incredible illusions and misinterpretations of American motives? Well, apparently a lot more than the US is doing now.

It's called public diplomacy, and it's not exactly rocket science. It means telling the truth as persuasively as possible, as widely as possible, using the most effective and modern techniques, in an ongoing and sustained effort that isn't on and off, depending on the crisis of the month. Says Steve Chaplin, a retired senior officer of the now-defunct United States Information Agency (USIA) who spent years in foreign assignments: "Public diplomacy is not like a water spigot you can turn on and off and get instant results. It depends a lot on personal relationships and substantive effort over time."

The problem is that the spigot was pretty much turned off after the cold war when USIA, the government agency charged with telling America's story overseas, was subsumed under the State Department and shorn of people and budget. Now, confronted by terrorism and a current of anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world, there's a drive to turn the spigot on again.

At the White House, Bush aide Karen Hughes has been running a sophisticated, quick-reaction public relations program with branches in London and Pakistan. But this is crisis-driven and not the vehicle for long-term public diplomacy.

At the State Department, a new under- secretary for public diplomacy, former advertising executive Charlotte Beers, is trying to mobilize her resources and use new technology. A promising Internet operation is in existence and is getting high numbers of hits from around the world.

But in Washington, former USIA officers are dispersed among State's geographic bureaus and area offices, and no longer report directly to her.

Abroad, former USIA public-affairs officers must compete with other sections of their embassies for funding, and with the downgrading of their functions are angling for promotion on the diplomatic, rather than information, side of the house.

The best of worlds would probably be a renaissance of USIA in its former, separate state, but few politicians in Washington see that as feasible. So various players troubled by the long-term public diplomacy vacuum are pushing for other action.

Republican Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Tom Lantos, the panel's senior Democrat, want the General Accounting Office to come up with a wide-ranging evaluation of the government's public diplomacy and overseas broadcasting efforts by spring so they can get new money in the fiscal 2003 budget. "The problem is too great to be solved by current efforts," they say.

On the Senate side, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden, a Democrat who has long supported US government broadcasting, is promoting an ambitious, new multilingual radio and television project to reach a Muslim young-adult (aged 15-30) audience. It would cost $284 million to get started, and about $222 million a year to run, over and above existing US international broadcasting programs.

Among influential voices from outside government, a Council on Foreign Relations task force cochaired by Carla Hills and Richard Holbrooke calls for a lot more money and a major reconfiguration of the federal bureaucracy if public diplomacy is to succeed in the Muslim world. And the Center for the Study of the Presidency, headed by David Abshire, suggests a new, overarching public communications strategy that would include not only the State Department, but also the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Health and Human Services, and the US trade representative. The effort would also draw heavily on the creativity of the nongovernmental sector.

The ideas are stimulating. They all require money. The urgency is now. Despite current victories in Afghanistan, President Bush has consistently warned that the war against terrorism will be long. A sustained public-diplomacy effort must be even longer.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served consecutively in the Reagan administration as associate director of USIA, director of the Voice of America, and State Department spokesman. He is currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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