NEW YORK - As Pres. George W. Bush's confidante Karen Hughes prepares for her confirmation hearings later this spring as the nominee for under-secretary of state for public diplomacy, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is weighing in with sharp criticism of Washington's track record on boosting its image abroad.
”Despite U.S. efforts to better inform, engage and influence foreign audiences, recent polling data show that anti-Americanism is spreading and deepening around the world,” the GAO said in a recent report to Congress.
The agency recommends that ”the director of the Office of Global Communications (OGC) fully implement the role mandated for the office in the President's executive order (of Jan. 21, 2003), including facilitating the development of a national communications strategy.”
Unfortunately, the White House has confirmed that the OGC no longer exists -- though it is still displayed on the White House website. Its two top officials departed several weeks ago to join the private sector. The National Security Council is to assume its responsibilities.
The OGC started its short life in 2001 as the Bush administration's ”war room” during the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. It set up Coalition Information Centers in Washington, London and Islamabad ”to provide a rapid response capability to counter inaccurate portrayals of U.S. actions and optimize reporting of news favorable to the United States,” the GAO said.
But in a report last fall, the influential Defense Science Board concluded the OGC had not been effective, and had ”evolved into a second-tier organization devoted principally to tactical public affairs coordination.”
Most of the government's public diplomacy efforts come from the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The GAO as well as media and foreign policy authorities have stressed the importance of public diplomacy -- especially the job of ”winning the hearts and minds” of Muslim audiences in the Middle East -- but many have dismissed current efforts as fragmented, lacking a coherent communications strategy and amateurish.
U.S. public diplomacy currently has a number of components. Broadcasting activities include radio and television broadcasts to Cuba, through Radio Marti and TV Marti, radio broadcasts to the Middle East via Radio Sawa, television broadcasts to the Middle East through its Arabic satellite channel, Al Hurra, and broadcasts to Iran in Persian.
Student and cultural exchanges are also important parts of the effort, though the numbers of foreign students attending U.S. universities has declined sharply because of security concerns that have resulted in visa delays and denials.
Prospective students from the Middle East and South Asia have said they are also concerned about discrimination against Arabs and other Muslims.
Al Hurra, the State Department's Arabic-language TV voice in the Middle East, has attracted a relatively small audience compared to the more popular satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia. Radio Sawa is widely listened to by young people in the Middle East, reportedly because of its pop music content.
The State Department's broadcasting activities are supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), established when the U.S. Information Agency was discontinued.
Late last year, a bipartisan commission appointed by Pres. Bush concluded that the U.S. campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was ”uncoordinated and under-funded, and risks sending contradictory messages about U.S. intentions.”
The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was critical of the administration and Congress for not adequately funding the communications aspects of the war on terrorism.
It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between U.S. and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant” security measures and ''excessive” visa fees. The report also offered a mixed critique of public relations efforts to promote the United States abroad.
If confirmed by the Senate, Karen Hughes will be the third occupant of the State Department position, which has been vacant since last summer. Three years ago, the president recruited advertising executive Charlotte Beers to publicize U.S. interests. She resigned 18 months later and was replaced by Margaret Tutwiler, a State Department veteran who handled public relations for former Secretary of State James Baker during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Tutwiler also resigned.
Hughes' nomination has attracted criticism. Typical is Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, who told IPS: ”Appointing a silver-tongued political operative advances the policy choice to rely on spin and style over substance, a foreign policy that insists the U.S. role is to talk, not listen.”
”It reveals the belief that we have all the answers -- that there is nothing left for us to learn from the rest of the world.”
But public diplomacy is not the exclusive preserve of the State Department; many other government agencies are involved. One of them is the U.S. Army, which is currently in the process of creating a comic book targeted at the youth audience in the Middle East and Islamic world.
The government's ”Federal Business Opportunities” website has posted an ad looking for a collaborator for ”a series of comic books.” They would be produced by the U.S. Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, headquarters of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group.
The ad says comics can provide ”the opportunity for youth to learn lessons, develop role models and improve their education.”
The Army is likely to face stiff competition, as the comic book medium is already popular among Arabic-speaking young people in the Middle East, whose heroes include ”Zein, a.k.a. the Last Pharaoh” and Amgad Darweesh, Zein's alter ego, who is 14,000 years old.
Cairo-based publisher AK Comics sells in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, and plans further expansion. It says its goal is ”to fill the cultural gap created over the years by providing essentially Arab role models -- Arab super heroes to become a source of pride to our young generations.”
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