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U.S. Advised to Invest in Its Image

A study commissioned by Congress says the nation overlooks public diplomacy, to its peril.

October 01, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Diplomatic efforts to improve the image of the United States abroad are "absurdly and dangerously underfunded," and a Cabinet-level position of image czar should be created inside the White House to oversee America's public diplomacy effort, according to a report to be delivered to Congress today.

"A process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety," the report says. "In this time of peril, public diplomacy is absurdly and dangerously underfunded, and simply restoring it to its Cold War status is not enough."

The study was commissioned in June by Congress, which is worried by the steep decline in the way the United States is viewed abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. It was headed by former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria. Djerejian and members of his bipartisan task force, which included a number of prominent Arab Americans, traveled to several nations, including Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Senegal and Morocco, to explore how the effort to win goodwill toward the United States was faring.

Their report, "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," recommends that a high-level official who has the president's trust be put in charge of developing strategy for communications abroad, according to members of the commission.

Working with the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs overseas broadcasting, this "special counsel to the president" would also try to ensure that U.S. policies were sensitive to foreign public opinion.

The goal is "adding some serious muscle to public diplomacy, putting it in the White House, bringing more voices into the formulation of policy, and once that policy is set, making sure there is consistent communication," said one of the commission's members, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Djerejian, through a spokesman, declined to comment until the 80-page report is unveiled today.

Congress directed the advisory group only to study the public diplomacy apparatus, not to make recommendations about whether to adjust any U.S. policies such as support for Israel and for conservative regimes in the Persian Gulf, unpopular among many people in the Muslim world.

"We're not saying that we think spin and PR and propaganda is the answer to improving our relations in the Arab and Muslim world, but we also very firmly believe that our story ... has not been told very well, partly because we haven't listened to the other side," the commission member said.

However, in an interview this year before his appointment to the commission, another advisor argued that retaining goodwill around the world was in the national interest of the United States and might require changing policies.

"Interests are fixed, you don't change them," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. "But if policies are not serving your interests, you change them."

The report does not say how much the U.S. should spend to improve its image abroad, but it makes at least two recommendations that could spark Beltway power struggles.

It recommends that the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- an independent body that overseas all government-sponsored, nonmilitary international broadcasting, including the Voice of America, Arabic-language Radio Sawa and the proposed Middle East Television Network -- report to the White House image czar.

Because government-controlled news lacks credibility, however, news programs should remain independent of White House authority, the advisors said.

It would also put the Pentagon's broadcasts to occupied Iraq under the authority of the new White House public diplomacy office, an initiative the military might resist.

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage acknowledged that the administration had done a poor job of communicating with Iraqis since major combat ended.

"We were very slow off the mark," Armitage told a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. "And the one who's maddest and most angry about it is the president of the United States."

Armitage said the State Department had moved personnel to Iraq to help publicize U.S. efforts to rebuild that nation.

Among the recommendations likely to be welcomed by the diplomatic establishment are that the U.S. pay to have 1,000 important American books translated into Arabic, expand exchange programs, promote greater foreign access to U.S. education, promote English-language teaching abroad, and allow the State Department to hire 300 fluent Arabic speakers within the next two years.

"You've got 54 fluent Arabic speakers in the State Department, and of those, maybe five are able and willing to go on TV or radio to have a conversation with the Muslim media," the commission member said.

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