Why America's story needs to be sent overseas

One of the Bush administration's critical needs in its war against terrorism is a credible information program that would counter the falsehoods and hatred fostered against the US by America's enemies. A particular need is reaching Islamic lands where youthful generations have been exposed to years of misinformation by radical clerics.

Many different players are now becoming galvanized by the need for this information counteroffensive. They include the State Department, the Pentagon, the Congress, the White House, other government entities, and the private sector.

They are well-intentioned, but uncoordinated, in this noble cause. It is too early to declare the effort actually jeopardized, but it is clear that the multiplicity of players is complicating it. Some central direction is required to ensure that the mission is clear, the strategy in place, the resources marshaled, and the goals achieved.

In the bad old days of the cold war, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was the agency that conducted and coordinated the government's information campaign abroad, often using individuals and institutions from the private sector to help. But USIA has long since been folded into the State Department, its structure dismantled, its officers dispersed. During the Clinton administration, much of the funding allocated to public diplomacy, as it now is called, was siphoned off for other diplomatic and government functions.

Now, though a rebirth of the agency seems politically implausible, the war on terrorism has spawned a recognition that the kind of programs USIA conducted are much needed again.

Two leaders of the House International Relations Committee, Representatives Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, have introduced in Congress the Freedom Promotion Act "to begin rebuilding a mass-communications infrastructure to explain American policies and culture to the world." It recommends additional funding, a revamp of the government's broadcasting system, a satellite television system, a program – particularly aimed at the Muslim world – for a summer youth exchange, steps to enhance journalistic standards in the Arab world, and a sister-city program between American cities and cities in the Middle East.

The State Department, which has gathered the remnants of USIA under an under secretary for public diplomacy, says it supports a beefed up public-diplomacy effort. But it has opposed the bill, primarily because it doesn't want Congress telling it how much, when, and where to invest the resources.

Mr. Lantos has since had second thoughts about the broadcasting recommendations of the bill, but Mr. Hyde is pressing ahead. "I've seldom seen him as animated on an issue as this one," says an aide. "Public diplomacy is stepping out of the shadows. He thinks we have a great story to tell overseas."

Meanwhile, other players are forging ahead. After the Sept. 11 attack, President Bush's counselor Karen Hughes launched a quick-response war room at the White House to counter the Taliban's anti-American propaganda.

Last month the Voice of America inaugurated a new Arabic-language service targeted at under-30-year-olds in Jordan, the Palestinian areas, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, and the Gulf states. Beaming music, news, and features on medium-wave AM and FM radio stations and through digital radio satellite channels, the programming will ultimately reach millions.

Another significant opportunity in the war against terrorism is the encouragement of a free and competent press in not-free countries. Government seed money can help, but private professional organizations often have more credibility. In Afghanistan, for example, where local journalistic standards are poor, a large grant from USAID to the Internews organization is helping support local media. The BBC Trust, with a major grant from the British government, is working with broadcast media. UNESCO is working with a French group, AINA, to support local Afghan media and a new newspaper, the Kabul Weekly.

The Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence is out of business, but before its demise it had explored the use of space communications circuits to feed direct radio and direct Internet access. It had launched the Pakistan Education Initiative through USAID, and planned to extend it to Afghanistan. The aim was to funnel distance-learning programs into the religious schools that preach hatred of the American "infidel."

Thus various programs and pieces of programs are under way, initiated by agencies that sometimes have overlapping agendas, and sometimes divergent agendas. The players resemble an orchestra tuning up, getting ready to play what could be an important symphony, but without a conductor. The place to look for that conductor is clearly the White House.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served in the Reagan administration as associate director of USIA; director of VOA; and assistant secretary of State for public affairs and State Department spokesman. He is currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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