- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

A Pentagon advisory board has produced a searing indictment of the White House, Congress and the State and Defense Departments for not developing a communications strategy to burnish the tarnished U.S. image around the world.

America’s ability to persuade other nations “is in crisis,” says a task force report from the Defense Science Board, “and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security.”

“Policies will not succeed unless they are communicated to global and domestic audiences in ways that are credible and allow them to make informed, independent judgments,” the board says. “Messages should seek to reduce, not to increase, perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards.”

Those messages are carried in public diplomacy, through American Cultural Centers abroad and exchange programs that bring foreigners to the United States and public affairs offices that address the foreign press. In addition, strategic communications include Voice of America broadcasts and information operations that can involve controversial psychological warfare.

Missing from these efforts are “strong leadership, strategic direction, adequate coordination, sufficient resources [funds] and a culture of measurement and evaluation,” the report says.

While the assessment did not name President Bush or the secretaries of state and defense, the authors left no doubt about to whom their appraisal referred.

The Bush administration has long been criticized for not persuading allied, friendly and neutral nations of its intent, especially in the war on terror and the incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.

The task force’s analysis was directed largely at the Bush administration inability to overcome negative attitudes about the United States held in Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. “Islam’s internal and external struggle over values, identity, and change is the dominant political arena in which strategic communication takes place,” the report says.

This study, however, was not limited to the Islamic world. “The contest of ideas is taking place not just in Arab and other Islamic countries but in the cities and villages of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere,” says the task force of scholars, researchers from think tanks, officials within the government, and private citizens.

The task force noted that the Defense Science Board, which advises the Pentagon not just on technical issues but wider matters, issued an earlier report shortly after the terrorist assaults in New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, urging a high priority be given U.S. strategic communications with other nations.

Since then, about 15 other assessments have come from private institutes such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the conservative Heritage Foundation, the liberal Brookings Institution, and from several congressional committees and investigative offices. Like the Pentagon board, they have advisory influence, not operational authority.

“So far,” this most recent report says, “these concerns have produced no real change. The White House has paid little attention. Congressional actions have been limited to informational hearings and funding for Middle East broadcasting initiatives.” The State Department’s public diplomacy has languished and the Defense Department has focused on the U.S. press and television.

Consequently, little has been done to counter the daily barrage of anti-American propaganda from the likes of Al Jazeera, founded in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in 1996 and which has since become the Muslim world’s best-known TV network.

More TV stations and publications, although less well-known in the West, “are creating the frames within which people understand and misunderstand events and U.S. political goals,” the report says. Add cell phones, wireless handhelds, video, camcorders, digital cameras and the Internet — though use of the later is lower in the Middle East than elsewhere in the world.

The task force recommended thoroughly overhauling the government’s communications apparatus, including appointing a senior official in the National Security Council to oversee the effort and establishing an independent, joint government-private, nonpartisan Center for Strategic Communication.

And the task force warns: “We will not succeed in revitalizing strategic communication if we tinker around the edges. Given the enormous challenges we fact, we can succeed only if we use all the instruments of national power.” It proposes changes in the State and Defense Departments, in U.S. Embassies everywhere and in the military’s combatant commands. The administration’s past indifference to strategic communications, however, does not offer hope much will be done.

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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