The Bush White House has decided to transform what was a temporary effort to rebut Taliban disinformation about the Afghan war into a permanent, fully staffed "Office of Global Communications" to coordinate the administration's foreign policy message and supervise America's image abroad, according to senior officials.
The office, due to be up and running by fall, will allow the White House to exert more control over what has become one of the hottest areas of government and private-sector initiatives since Sept. 11. Known as "public diplomacy," it attempts to address the question President Bush posed in his speech to Congress the week after the terrorist attacks: "Why do they hate us?"
At the time, Bush was referring to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "They hate our freedoms," he has repeatedly said since then. But as demonstrations, boycotts and other expressions of anti-Americanism have spread across the Islamic world and beyond, the question has taken on broader meaning -- and the need for a broader response.
A senior administration official said the goal of the office was not to supplant the State Department, which has primary responsibility for "telling America's story" overseas, or replace other agencies with international outreach functions. The office, he said, would add "thematic and strategic value," along with presidential clout, to their efforts.
"If you were to ask people representing the government who travel, who serve overseas -- even leading Americans -- 'What does America want to say to people in the world? What are the top three points? What is the answer?' that has to come from the top," the official said.
Headed by a yet-to-be-named "counselor to the president," the office would expand many of the responsibilities of the White House Coalition Information Center, established shortly after the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began last fall.
High-ranking officials from here and Britain made scores of Arab media appearances in what the White House considers one of the most successful efforts to assure the Arab world that the United States has not launched a global anti-Muslim campaign. Even as it was booking guests on Qatar-based al-Jazeera, the White House Coalition Information Center was laying out a uniform, daily message to communicate across high- and low-tech media outlets. It is that level of management, undertaken quickly and effectively across the administration, that the White House thinks it will be able to continue.
The new office is the brainchild of senior Bush adviser Karen P. Hughes, architect of the administration's efforts to ensure a uniform message on domestic policy. Although Hughes returned to live in Texas early this month, officials said she will remain closely involved in the new operation.
Charlotte Beers, the advertising agency executive Bush appointed last year to the State Department's top public diplomacy job, said one of the September lessons still being learned "is that we can and should do more to educate, and influence the attitudes of, foreign audiences toward our country."
Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council and a longtime Near East analyst for the agency, said that during years of living and traveling in the Middle East, "I have never felt such an extraordinary gap between the two worlds. . . . Clearly, in a region where we desperately need friends and supporters, their number is dwindling, and we are increasingly on the defensive."
"How has this state of affairs come about?" House International Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said in a speech last month to the Council on Foreign Relations. "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?"
Hyde shares a widespread conviction that a major part of the problem has been poor salesmanship. In this view, the best way to fight a negative image is to increase the flow of positive information, using every tool at the United States' command, including the most modern information technology, student exchanges and placement of overseas American libraries.
Some critics question whether expanding and improving delivery will help if there is no change in the message. "If fundamental policies are seen to be flawed, a prettied-up package will not make a difference," Fuller told a recent meeting of the bipartisan U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
The problem is particularly acute in the Middle East, he said, a part of the world where U.S. support for Israel and for non-democratic regimes are seen as fundamental tenets of wrongheaded American policy. "Immense interest in American culture" remains, along with approval of the U.S. political system and domestic freedoms, Fuller said. But he said "there is a sense of double standards" among Arab youth who say: " 'We want your political values. It is you we perceive as not applying them in any consistent way.' "
Through polling, focus groups and fact-finding missions, the administration has been exploring how to enhance the image of the United States.
Among the first ventures is Radio Sawa, a 24-hour U.S. government radio station that began broadcasting to the Arab world last spring. A far cry from the wordy, editorializing Voice of America that has been the centerpiece of U.S. government broadcasting since World War II, Radio Sawa is modeled after Top-100 FM stations in this country.
Sawa, which means "together" in Arabic, uses market research to select a frequently updated playlist of American and Arab pop music that will appeal to young Arab listeners. Although there are plans to add more substantive programming, its current editorial content is a brief news bulletin twice an hour.
In a promotional prototype of future programming, Mohammed, an Arab youth, calls a radio talk show to say: "I want to know why the United States is fighting a war against Islam." In response, the station plays an excerpt from one of many Bush speeches on the peaceful nature of Islam and the ways in which terrorists have perverted it.
The State Department has begun producing what Beers calls "mini-documentaries on Muslim life in America" to air on satellite stations in the Middle East. Having dismantled, for budgetary and security reasons, most of the once-ubiquitous American Cultural Centers and libraries around the world, the State Department plans to expand the "American Room" concept begun in Russia in the early 1990s. Corners of Americana established with local staff in existing local libraries or other cultural sites, the "rooms" are considered less appealing as terrorist targets.
With these efforts in their infancy, it is unclear how effective they will be. "We're reinventing the wheel," Walter R. Roberts, a veteran of high posts in public diplomacy efforts in previous administrations and a consultant to the advisory commission, said of the American Rooms at a recent commission meeting.
One Arab American who has closely followed public diplomacy developments said, "We need to ally ourselves with the right people. Our embassies need to go out and mingle. They hang out with the elites and don't engage those who resent us" but who have not turned to violence. "It's like a campaign," said this observer. "You've got to go after the swing voters."
Beers says this is precisely the attitude she is trying to instill. She has pledged that all U.S. diplomats, no matter what their rank, will receive more extensive training in the American "message" of democracy, personal freedom and free markets and learn how to spread it through local societies. Recruitment programs now emphasize public affairs, long considered near the bottom of the diplomatic career ladder, as an increasingly important specialty. Early this year, Beers brought U.S. embassy public affairs officers from around the world to Washington for a morale-boosting conference.
Congress has also moved into the public diplomacy arena. The House last week passed, with no opposition, a Hyde-sponsored bill that eventually would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the public diplomacy budget, expand the responsibilities of Beers's office, establish civilian exchange programs in the Muslim world and fund round-the-clock satellite television to the Middle East. Similar efforts are underway in the Senate.
Hollywood has signed on to help, although early flag-waving has evolved in most cases into nervousness about being drawn into a less clear-cut propaganda effort.
Almost every public policy think tank, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, has held symposiums and offered advice. Today, the Council on Foreign Relations will weigh in with the release of "Strategy for Reform," the result of a month-long public diplomacy study by a private-sector task force.
But while there is a torrent of new attention, concern over how the United States is perceived abroad and what the government should do to influence foreign attitudes is a well-worn subject in Washington.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to identify a target audience overseas with his Office of War Information, which created the Voice of America and established American Information Centers in liberated areas of Europe.
During the Cold War, President Harry S. Truman launched a "Campaign of Truth" that he said was "as important as armed strength or economic aid" in the battle against communism. Its most memorable creation was the U.S. International Information Administration, which established overseas libraries and foreign exchange programs. Under Dwight D. Eisenhower, it became the United States Information Agency.
Eisenhower rejected placing the agency under presidential control, and direct White House involvement was not revived until Ronald Reagan took office. In a classified, January 1983 National Security Decision Directive, Reagan placed responsibility for "overall planning, direction, coordination and monitoring of implementation of public diplomacy activities" under the National Security Council.
Relative global peace and a search for cuts in the federal bureaucracy made USIA a natural target for the Clinton administration, and there were few complaints when it was eliminated as a separate agency in 1999. By September 2001, the White House viewed public diplomacy as a back-burner enterprise for a superpower with unilateral interests and responsibilities.
Christopher Ross, a State Department specialist in Middle Eastern affairs who returned to government last year as "special coordinator" in Beers's office, said, "In the 10 years between the Cold War and September 11, we had forgotten about the outside world." The harsh anti-American rhetoric and images that had begun to overtake initial responses of international sympathy and support, he said, "showed us what people think of us, and we were shocked."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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