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Foreign outreach called deficient

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2008

A congressionally mandated commission has issued a scathing criticism of the State Department's public diplomacy capabilities, saying that there is no U.S. official anywhere in the world whose full-time responsibility is to engage with ordinary people.

The report by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which looks at the human resources in the field for the first time, said that the "overseas staffing structure" has not changed since the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) merged with the State Department in 1999.

"Public-affairs officers view themselves, and are viewed by others, more as managers and administrators than as expert communicators," the commission said. They "are being asked to spend the overwhelming majority of their time on administration and management, not outreach."

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, public diplomacy took on a new urgency. In a nationally televised press conference, President Bush criticized U.S. efforts to reach Arab and Muslim audiences, saying: "We are not doing a very good job of getting our message out."

In March 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States "must do a better job of engaging the Muslim world," when introducing longtime Bush confidant Karen P. Hughes as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

The report says public-diplomacy training at the State Department "has never been stronger," but adds that it is "not yet strong enough," with "a number of conspicuous, and serious, blind spots."

The department "makes no special effort to recruit individuals into the [public-diplomacy] career track who would bring into the Foreign Service experience or skills specifically relevant to the work of communicating with and influencing foreign publics," it said.

The current undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, James Glassman, "has met with commission members to receive their report and thank them for their work," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

"We will study the group´s recommendations carefully," he said. "While public-affairs officers are working every day to reach out to foreign audiences, we are always interested in finding ways to have them carry out their mission more effectively."

Mr. Glassman was confirmed earlier this month, nearly six months after Mrs. Hughes' resignation took effect.

Each U.S. embassy has a public-affairs officer who is in charge of a large section with both American and foreign employees.

There are usually at least two more Foreign Service officers. The so-called information officer, or spokesman, follows local media and responds to press inquiries. The cultural-affairs officer manages various outreach programs.

None of those officials, however, is engaged in the public aspect of public diplomacy full time, said the bipartisan commission´s report, which was published last week.

"This is the first report to point out that there is no one overseas whose primary job responsibility is to interface with foreign audiences," said Matt Armstrong, an analyst who writes a blog on public diplomacy at mountainrunner.us.

The report also says: "the Foreign Service Officer Test and Oral Assessment do not specifically test for public-diplomacy instincts and communication skills."

It also criticized the Foreign Service´s evaluation and promotion system for lacking an "inherent requirement that employees actually engage in such outreach." It said few public-diplomacy officers rise to the State Department´s highest ranks.

The commission that produced the report was established by Congress in 1948.

The most recent annual Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey found "some encouraging signs for America´s global image for the first time this decade."

Still, favorable views of the United States increased only "modestly since 2007 in 10 of 21 countries where comparative data are available."

"Though public diplomacy is now clearly built into the State Department structure in a way that it was not prior to the 1999 consolidation, it is more difficult to judge whether department officials are taking public diplomacy into consideration in actual foreign policy decision-making to a greater degree," the commission said, referring to the merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department.