- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The American Consulate-General in Florence, Italy, is housed in a superb, 19th century palazzo on the north bank of the Arno.

For generations, it was a gathering place, not only for Americans who live in Tuscany, but also for others. Every year, tens of thousands of students from all over the world attend the University of Florence. Traditionally, the U.S. Information Agency library, run out of the American Consulate, was a huge resource for them, a place where they could get easy access to an excellent collection of American books and periodicals.

There have been times when many students in Florence did not agree with U.S. foreign policy. Vietnam and President Reagan’s deployment of Pershing missiles, for example, brought demonstrators pouring into streets around the consulate. But many protesting U.S. policies also were happy to use the library. In fact, several told me at various times they used the USIA library to help write papers critical of the U.S. They told me that with respect.

Now the U.S. Consulate-General is a fortress, with monstrous, ugly concrete barricades. The wide street in front, the Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci, named for the Florentine who gave his name to our country and our continent, is blocked off, to protect the consulate. To drive from one side to the other, you have to make a detour of about 10 blocks, which takes you from the wide Lungarno into a maze of narrow back streets away from the river. How many times a day do you think the consulate, and we who are represented by it, are cursed by Florentines forced to go way out of their way?

Much more importantly, the library is no longer. The USIA is no longer. Congress killed it in 1999. The books and periodicals were given away.

Now there is no reason or opportunity for any of those thousands of students to have any contact with our consulate. Those who protest U.S. policy on Iraq, on Palestine, on global warming no longer have easy access to American books and periodicals which might help offset their growing hatred for us.

And now we are engaged in a “global war on terrorism” — not a war between nation-states with competing interests, but a war against relatively little groups of people who want to kill us because they hate us.

It appears whatever we do to the people who hate us, there is always a growing number of them. Every time we kill somebody who hates us, or catch and imprison any of them, more take their place and add to their numbers. How can we get off this treadmill?

The Vietnam War may or may not have involved U.S. interests, but it was between governments. It was wrongly described as a “struggle for hearts and minds.” The “global war on terror” really is all about hearts and minds. How does our government change foreigners’ hearts and minds?

Following September 11, 2001, the Bush administration had a new-found appreciation for the importance of “public diplomacy,” and now Karen Hughes, an insider’s insider, one of the president’s closest friends, is in charge.

In recent interviews, Mrs. Hughes has made claims for progress during her tenure. In fact, most of the claims involve things done as well if not better by the old USIA. For example, she said she had established a “rapid-response unit” in Washington, which reviews news reports around the world and alerts U.S. diplomats so they can quickly respond. “I think it’s important that they understand what the people of Latin America are waking up and hearing and reading about,’ Mrs. Hughes said.

This is progress? Traditionally it was officials in the Foreign Service (including the USIA) on the scene who told Washington what the people of Latin America, or wherever, were “waking up and hearing and reading about.” What’s the point in having them there if they must depend on Washington to know what the local folks are reading and hearing? And good Foreign Service officers report what the local folks will read and hear before it’s printed or broadcast.

Then Mrs. Hughes claimed accomplishments which maybe ought not to be accomplished. For example, she said she was responsible for ensuring “public diplomacy skills” are used as one criterion for “evaluating ambassadors for promotion.” First, it’s rare for an ambassador to get “promoted.” Second, ambassadors conduct relations between governments, or, technically, between chiefs of state. Trying to influence the subjects of that government or leader can make that much more difficult.

What should we do?

The State Department should stick to its knitting. Re-create the USIA as an independent agency charged with conducting public diplomacy. Go back to tried and true methods. Send more American scholars there to study and teach and bring more foreign scholars over here. Let foreigners have access to information about everything we do, good and bad. Let them see our movies and television shows — not just the big hits that get exported anyway, but the little ones, that really show more about us than do “Rambo” and “The Sopranos.” Let them see the art we produce and hear the music we make. Let them read our books.

Finally, there are reports the Voice of America is about to eliminate most or all broadcasting in English. For goodness sakes. The reason many if not most people listen to the Voice of America is to learn English. If we want them to listen to what we say, doesn’t this seem like a good way to do it?

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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