Obama soars abroad, but America's PR doesn't

The president's stirring Cairo speech demands follow-up, amplification, and explanation.

President Obama's speech to the Islamic world was a splendid example of public diplomacy at its best. His message was sincere, his words eloquent, and his quotations from the Koran pertinent as he reached out beyond governments and political organizations to millions of ordinary Muslims.

The US State Department carried the speech live and translated it into 14 languages on its website. It was posted on blogs and sent by text message to mobile phones in more than 170 countries. The US government's Middle East TV operation, Alhurra, ran a three-hour special, canvassing viewer reaction by e-mail and Facebook. The Voice of America (VOA) also did its fair share of promotion.

However impressive this was, public diplomacy cannot be a one-shot affair with a presidential speech. It demands follow-up, amplification, and explanation. Foreign audiences need interpretation of US government policies, and insight into the American way of life and love of freedom.

In difficult earlier years, notably during the cold war, this function was performed by the US Information Agency (USIA) and government radio such as the VOA, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, broadcasting to people behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. USIA was disbanded after the cold war, its remnants placed under the State Department, its transmitters given a new home under a civilian board of governors.

After 9/11, though, the need to project accurate information about the US to Arab countries and others became urgent again. How best to reinvigorate public diplomacy became a critical discussion. On the campaign trail, Sen. John McCain vowed that if elected president he would reconstruct USIA. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas earlier this year introduced a bill to do just that, but it has failed to gain traction. Without political support for a new stand-alone agency to conduct public diplomacy, it remains a function of the State Department.

During the Bush administration, public diplomacy suffered a procession of undersecretaries; State Department officials say the office has been vacant about 40 percent of the time since 2001.

Now the Obama administration has succeeded in getting its own undersecretary confirmed by the Senate, Judith McHale. She inherits an operation sadly understaffed and short of resources, according to a recent report on public diplomacy by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It also reports a vacancy rate of more than 13 percent in State Department public diplomacy slots, with junior officers unversed in requisite skills being forced to fill positions above their pay grades.

There are complaints that bureaucratic tasks disrupt actual public diplomacy. Twenty-five percent of public diplomacy officers abroad do not meet language requirements. In Arab countries, 36 percent of US public diplomacy officers assigned don't speak Arabic at the designated level.

For security reasons, US cultural centers in capital cities around the world have been closed, their operations moved to "heavily fortified embassy compounds" with concrete barriers and armed guards suggesting that visitors are not welcome.

Most troubling of all, however, is the lack of coordination and direction from the top. The GAO report questions whether "new leadership mechanisms or organizational structures are needed."

While State theoretically has the lead in public diplomacy, the Obama White House has set up the Global Engagement Dir­­ective to "leverage diplomacy, communications, international development." The Pentagon has a new official for public affairs. Meanwhile, the clearest push is coming from Con­gress, where members such as Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana have campaigned for funds and new thinking for public diplomacy.

The National Defense Author­ization Act of 2009 requires that the president issue a new comprehensive strategy by December to guide interagency efforts on public diplomacy. It cannot come too soon.

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

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