- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It is easy sometimes to despair of the work of public diplomacy. What can you do in the face of the disastrous images left by the executions of Saddam Hussein and his two half brothers? While the executions were certainly justified, they have come across the world’s front pages as sectarian revenge, barbarian in the extreme. One would not have thought it possible, but in the face of the chanting crowd of his enemies baying for his blood, Saddam Hussein actually managed to look dignified. And of course the United States is being blamed for backing the Maliki government, which allowed this to happen.

As long as the United States is engaged in Iraq, as long as we are engaged in the long war against terrorism, in fact as long as we remain the world’s only superpower, the public diplomacy challenge will be there. Belatedly this has come to the realization of the Bush administration, which started out assuming that U.S. actions would be self-explanatory. The major positions at the National Security Council and the State Department went unfilled thought most of the Bush first term.

With the appointment of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, at last the administration signaled it was becoming serious. Mrs. Hughes’ work may not be visible to the naked eye, because it’s mainly structural changes within the State Department. Under her tenure deputy assistant secretaries for public diplomacy have now been placed in key bureaus of the State Department, wedding policy formation to awareness of message and presentation.

In some instances, though, you can plainly see a keen mind at work on both substance and presentation, as in first lady Laura Bush’s announcement of the Bush administration’s initiative for the eradication of malaria, a disease that claims more lives in Africa than AIDS.

Within the State Department, Mrs. Hughes has also since October been circulating a draft National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication. Since the untimely demise of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999, the absence of such a strategy has been noticeable. Various entities of the U.S. government have been sailing by their own lights. For instance, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, has done much to confuse the issues relaying America’s message to the world in recent times.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is another that comes to mind. While the work of USAID ought to redound to the benefit of the image of the United States as well as the benefit of the recipients, there is tremendous reluctance at USAID to take credit. Our international enemies and competitors display no such self-defeating modesty.

This is therefore a welcome initiative, and it must to be applauded. The national plan “incorporates all efforts, civilian and military, undertaken by employees and contractors of all United States Government departments and agencies.” Its purpose is threefold: 1) to spread a message of hope and opportunity rooted in the most basic American values; 2) to isolate and undermine “extremists that threaten freedom and peace;” and 3) to work to nurture common interests and values with other people and nations around the globe.

Now, all of these are worthy goals and there is much in the draft plan that one can agree with. Unfortunately, to capture the tactical activities of the entire U.S. government in its entirety, along with all its contractors, in a 21-page document is all but impossible. On the other hand, as a visionary statement of strategy, the document fails as well, made up, as it is, of a mixture of short-term and long-term goals, specific-action items, critiques of existing programs, and methods of message development. In other words, it looks like a catch-all for various thinking on the subject.

It is time the State Department came up with a far more coherent set of principles — or gave up and accepted the reconstitution of the agency in some form. Such a document should: 1) define the public diplomacy mission; 2) establish guiding principles by which the mission can be accomplished; 3) specify lines of authority, functional organizations and relationships; 4) name important audiences and channels to reach them; and 5) create processes for targeting, clearing and assessing messages.

Public diplomacy is the work of generations. It is a crucial component in the effort to restore America’s image and leadership overseas. That is why it will certainly be worth the intellectual effort to get it right.

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