Tall Order, Tough Questions

No one doubts that the U.S. Senate will confirm Dr. Condoleezza Rice as the next secretary of state, our nation's chief diplomat. How tough the next couple of days will be for the president's National Security Advisor under the global spotlight is less certain. Will the Senate Foreign Relations Committee genuflect to the secretary-designate as the 9/11 Commission mostly did when questioning Rice in public regarding what the administration knew about Al Qaida threats before 9/11?

It isn't until you have a chance to read the 9/11 Commission Report in black and white that the administration's lackadaisical response becomes brutally transparent. Under the chapter heading, "The System Was Blinking Red," we learn that more than six months went by as Counterterrorism Security Group chair Richard Clarke warned Rice repeatedly and futilely that threats on the United States were both urgent and imminent. By the summer of 2001 there existed an unprecedented number of threats against the U.S., and the intelligence community, noting a high probability that threats were imminent, sent an ominous Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) on August 6, 2001, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." Senate Foreign Relations member and California Democrat Barbara Boxer promises to include the following questions at her turn:

  • Why did the United States go to war in Iraq based on misleading -- if not false and fraudulent -- evidence?
  • Why did we divert valuable resources and intelligence personnel to Iraq, taking them away from Afghanistan and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden?
  • Why did you mislead the American people into thinking there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida before September 11th?

As Boxer says, "Dr. Rice's confirmation hearing must not be a rubber stamp of President Bush's appointment. The Senate must take its 'advice and consent' role seriously." But it's not just the Senate that should be avoiding the rubber stamp approach to the foreign policy process. The American public is intricately tied to the decision making on the 8th floor of Foggy Bottom. Whether we like it or not, what the U.S. Government does in this world is impacting how others see us. U.S. foreign policy making is a complex legislative and deliberative process, but in the eyes of the world it is mostly measured in what our President says and does and what the future secretary of state states in public or tells heads of state behind closed doors. This impacts us all, our image in the world, and how we respond to our present tainted one. We're not exactly winning Miss Congeniality Contests overseas these days, most recently illustrated in the debate about how quickly the U.S. Government responded to the Asian Tsunami disaster and how proportionate our donations were to other comparable western industrialized countries.

The U.S. State Department sits just a few miles from the White House and the Pentagon, all of which have been tasked since 9/11 with public diplomatic efforts to deter the ideological efforts of this government's enemies while simultaneously trying to "win hearts and minds" of citizens on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global constituencies opposed to this administration's pre-emptive military interventions. It's a very tall order, for which the American public has been kept apprised of at an arm's distance in op-eds, government reports and task force junkets. [Some fifteen reports have been published since 9/11 on how to improve America's message with the world.] President Bush has already gone on record to state that Dr. Rice will be at the helm of government-led public diplomacy efforts. In an interview Friday with The Washington Post aboard Air Force One, Bush emphasized the nation's need to confront America's image problem, particularly in the Muslim world:

"The people of Afghanistan, which is a part of the Muslim world, are really happy that the government of the United States, along with others, liberated them from the Taliban. I suspect that people in the Muslim world, as we speak, are thrilled that supplies are being delivered by U.S. servicemen and women. The Iranians -- the reformers in Iran are, I suspect, very hopeful that the United States government is firm in our belief that democracy ought to spread. In other words, there are some places we're not popular and other places where we're liked. And there's no question we've got to continue to do a better job of explaining what America is all about; that in our country you're free to worship as you see fit, that we honor the Muslim faith, and that if you choose not to -- we don't want territory, we want there to be freedom. And I've talked to Condi [national security adviser Condoleezza Rice] about this, and she agrees that we need to work on a public diplomacy effort that explains our motives and explains our intentions."

Even here President Bush is emphasizing mostly a one-way message-first communication approach to public diplomacy--how we can better explain ourselves to them.

In addition to Senator Boxer's tough questions about Iraq, Dr. Rice should be asked how the American people can get more involved in our own public diplomacy efforts not bound by the policy strains and bureaucratic red tape of Washington. Public diplomacy that comes primarily from the U.S. government is tenuous at best because it is this President and government officials like Rice whose images predominate in explaining U.S. foreign policy positions, many of which are controversial and in need of major overhaul. It is Rice for instance who is said to be one of the primary endorsers of the National Security Strategy of the United States that optioned preemptive military intervention that laid out a framework for the 2003 Iraqi invasion. It is also Rice who made it clear in her 9/11 Commission statements that she continues to promote the erroneous connection between 9/11 and Iraq. She has shown signs of as much intransigence on the Iraqi issue as the American President, which is not the intercultural temperament of one tasked to improve the telling of America's story abroad. It is for this, and many other reasons, that the primary source for America's image campaign, must be drawn from the American people outside Washington and not left in the hands of President Bush and the nation's chief diplomat.

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