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What's gone wrong with America's image and why - reprise by PHK (blog)

Monday, 03 July 2006
What's gone wrong with America's image and why - reprise 2006

If you read David Kaplan's brief description of what has gone wrong with America's image abroad since 9/11 in the June 22, US News and World Report and wonder who the critics are that he refers to, stop now. Here's the link to their report. The authors are clearly identified. Why Kaplan failed to name the obvious - perhaps only - source for his three paragraph write up - is a mystery to me. Perhaps because someone might read the report - it's only 40 pages long - and discover the other colossal problems identified by the authors. Or perhaps because Kaplan named names and wrote a longer report, but his editors chose to shrink-wrap the copy to conform to the rules of today's MSM attention-deficit infotainment journalism.

The report's authors are, by the way, staff from the Congressional General Accountability Office (GAO). They conducted the study over ten months under a Congressionally-directed mandate. Theirs is a serious critique that deserves serious attention. But don't expect Karen Hughes, the W administration's chief public diplomacy spokesperson to spend much time on it. She's now reportedly focusing on drawing up a classified list of "high priority Muslim countries" as the basis of the administration's latest effort to put a finger in the dike through forming yet another presidentially-anointed high level committee to "do something" about America's wretched image overseas.

"Same old people with a new title"

This apparently turns out to be an old committee with a new name, or actually "It's the same old people with a new title, says one insider" according to Steve Clemons at The Washington Note. Its new name is the Policy Coordinating Committee in Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication and it was officially established on April 6. (Thank you GAO). These are the people who are now drawing up this secret- non-secret list. As Eccentric Star points out: "The idea that it's only now that people directing this country's public diplomacy have thought about what audiences it should be directed at, or begun to understand who influences public opinion in key countries, is astounding."

Kaplan's report then is a once-over-lightly of a topic this blog and others have written extensively about over the past 18 months - or longer. If US News had featured the story and delved into what's behind and what preceded the current mess, then Kaplan would have done the public a much greater service. Perhaps he could encourage his editors to let him do so henceforth particularly now that the White House spin-and-media-placement machine has given the embarrassment new life in the public eye.

This would, of course, 1) entail research as well as 2) interviewing people who know the profession - including some now working abroad. It also would demand far more column inches. The result would be another nail in the W administration's coffin. However, the story would also not make the State Department under then secretary of state Madeleine Albright or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Jesse Helms during Clinton's second term look like foresighted superstars either.

I had planned to read the May 2006 GAO study earlier, but just didn't get to it. I finally read the first half last week over a German pancake and lots of coffee when I was waiting for my car to be serviced - and then finished the rest later. That's when I realized the source of Kaplan's report. When you finish with GAO's indictment, click over to this year's international public opinion polling study on America's image abroad conducted by Andy Kohut's Pew Charitable Trusts. The results? The view of the US from abroad is even worse than last year.

David Rieff in the New York Times Magazine July 2 sums this up well: "Just last month, the Pew Global Attitudes Project issued a new survey showing that anti-Americanism, which seemed to be in decline just a year ago, is again on the rise. By 41 percent to 34 percent, a plurality of Britons believes that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is a greater danger to world peace than the government of Iran." And these are our closest allies?

The consequences? "In the medium term, . . . an America that does not understand - and makes little effort to understand - why it has become so unpopular abroad is almost certain to find itself both disliked and ineffective in many parts of the world."

The W administration response? Convene a new-old committee to draw up a classified list of a dozen target countries most in need of U.S. public diplomacy attention and most of whom anyone with half a brain could identify while taking a shower. Give me a break.

The GAO, however, suggests other ways the State Department could improve America's image-burnishing process. This even if only dealing at the margins - until the unilateralist, over-militarized, secrecy-fixated W administration has finally been put to rest in some out of the way cemetery in Crawford, Texas. Please, let's keep Washington's National Cathedral and the Capitol Rotunda for people who deserve to be honored by this country.

Pew provides the evidence, Rieff explains the consequences, the GAO helps explains why.

While the Pew study is financed and conducted by the private sector, GAO's was congressionally mandated. Combined, they represent yet more stinging indictments of the Bush administration's continuing failure to establish a coherent approach to "telling America's story to the world" in the post 9/11 era. This despite budget increases of 21-28 percent for public diplomacy projects in the Muslim world- especially for increased exchanges of people (mostly from there to here). But the staffing has not kept up with the funding for projects since before Powell left in 2004.

Rice's approach is to shift staff - about 28 public diplomacy positions all told - through something cutely labeled "transformational diplomacy" from Europe and Washington, D.C. to the Muslim world, India, China and Latin America.

In fact, "transformational diplomacy" is a farce. Look at the numbers. There are about 58 Muslim majority countries in the world alone. Add in India, China and most of Latin America and the number of increases in positions Condi plans represents probably between one-quarter and one-half a person per country.

As the GAO emphasizes, public diplomacy staffs overseas just can't handle the increased funds and programs. This problem is at its worst in the Muslim world where tours of duty are short, positions are left unfilled because of staff shortages and these shortages are made worse by positions siphoned off to shore up the ill-fated Iraq venture. Further, only 60 to 70 percent of the American officers who fill these positions have even minimum proficiency in the language of the country to which they are assigned. Those there are cooped up in crusader castle embassies with drawbridges up, moats brimming and soldiers guarding the gates.

Seven strikes and you should be out, but . . .

In my view, the GAO and Pew 2006 reports demonstrate just one more reason that the dismemberment of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999 was a huge mistake. State has now had almost seven years to get public diplomacy right. Thus far it has failed miserably.

Sorry guys, but Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he broke USIA out of the State Department in 1953 and established a new agency designed to coordinate U.S. image efforts abroad. State may be just fine at political and economic data collection, reporting and analysis. I'd sure rather have its professionals analyzing data, formulating US policies and negotiating with foreigners and even running Embassies than the-know-nothing political appointees who swell far too much of this administration's ranks. State officers also issue (or more likely not) visas but some of the same problems that adversely affect effective public diplomacy cause major problems here, too. Unfortunately, State, has long deserved the moniker "foreign affairs sludge factory." Administration which requires flexibility is just not this bureaucracy-laden organization's forte.

In contrast, USIA - like USAID still is - was an operational agency. USIA activities supported current policies but they also promoted the wider and deeper scope of American culture, history and society. USIA officers normally spent more time overseas that State officers and nurtured personal relations often on a one-on-one basis. USIA headquarters had geographic area offices that coordinated programs, funds and staff in Washington and at the posts. When these offices were adequately staffed - prior to the budget cuts of the mid-1990s - they functioned well. They shrank during the 1990s and then disappeared into the fog of Foggy Bottom after the merger.

USIA also had a healthy public opinion research arm staffed by specialized professionals. Its reports were excellent. But this office was also chewed up during the State merger. The May GAO report states that it had recommended a $50 million budget for such research in a report in 2003, but that State has only appropriated $3 million. Something is wrong with this picture.

Ever heard of Country Plans?

But the problems get even worse according to the GAO. This is what Kaplan, Clemons and Heather Hurlburt at Democracy Arsenal focus on. There are no public diplomacy plans, no strategy, few tactics, no sharing of best practices and the three projects that the W administration loudly trumpeted as the salvation to America's overseas image problem early on were quietly ended because of their ineffectiveness.

What this latest GAO's report doesn't say is that coordination of America's public diplomacy was not a problem before October 1999 - that is before the now defunct U.S. Information Agency was merged into the State Department and that the coherent nature of a reasonably nimble Agency with staff who knew how to deal with the issues, design and make the programs run and above all, identify and talk to the people who mattered, is largely gone.

Just one example: the strategic country-specific planning document requirement that the GAO and the private sector say are necessary for effective action was sina qua non prior to the merger. Like, duh, you had to know who you wanted to talk to, what you wanted to say, why and how you planned to communicate.

Maybe I just don't get it, but I fail to see what both the GAO and the corporate public relations world now recommend as all that different from what USIA officers were required to submit every year for decades. This practice was well in place before I joined USIA in 1970.

Update and revise the model - to match current public relations best practices - sure - but the proposed strategic planning model pictured in the GAO study looks remarkably like what USIA required of its public affairs officers every year for decades. So it seems to me the first thing that could be done is to pull out those old Country Plans and talk to a representative sampling of the people responsible for designing, writing and implementing them. That is, if the plans weren't trashed as irrelevant after the merger. Why pay Performance International, a contract agency that specializes in "results management" to reinvent the wheel when many of the real specialists, people who designed, wrote and implemented these results-oriented country plans still live in the Washington, DC area. Has anyone talked to them?

In the meantime. . .

Because of the hash the State Department has made of its newest acquisition, other agencies have gone their own ways - and who can blame them. The U.S. Agency for International Development has established its own public diplomacy office to sell USAID projects at home and abroad. It is staffed by over 100 officers. State, in comparison, has a total of 710 staff in public diplomacy positions overseas from London to Vancouver the long way around to sell America to the world. It has inexplicably left another 124 positions vacant.

Then there's an out-of-control Pentagon that engages in any number of questionable public relations activities abroad. Some like the psy ops writing and placing of fake good news tales in the Iraqi media at $2,000 per story are being combined with genuine public affairs type programs - where lying is anathema.

This is progress? I don't think so. It looks to me like a redundant, uncoordinated and an un-networked world of competing messages, uncoordinated staffs, gaping holes and crossed wires. Can't this administration get anything right? Maybe Ms. Hughes might even take a lesson in effective international communications from Bin Laden.

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