Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Message Is Not Getting Out: The Resignation of the White House's Image-Maker to the World Reflects Problems the U.S. Has Been Having in Political Outreach and Articulating Foreign Policy Abroad. (the Nation: Public Diplomacy)

Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Message Is Not Getting Out: The Resignation of the White House's Image-Maker to the World Reflects Problems the U.S. Has Been Having in Political Outreach and Articulating Foreign Policy Abroad. (the Nation: Public Diplomacy)

Article excerpt

She couldn't do for Uncle Sam what she did for Uncle Ben's rice and so, after just 17 months on the job and on the eve of war, the advertising whiz who became undersecretary of state for public diplomacy has quit, reportedly for health reasons. Her office is under fire from all sides for failing to inform and influence world opinion in the war on terrorism and the new theater of combat in Iraq.

The failure wasn't only the fault of Charlotte Beers, a talented and bold Madison Avenue executive who turned everything from shampoo to rice into household enthusiasms and tried at the State Department to "brand" America the same way overseas. From the White House on down, concerned supporters of the president say, the Bush administration has failed to build a strategic domestic and international campaign in support of its broad antiterrorism policies.

Bush critics argue that it was impossible to sell world opinion on policies that many find to be fundamentally unsellable. Presidential backers counter that the culprit is the creaky national-security-policy process, which they say discourages innovation, rewards the static and is too slow for the information age. Public-diplomacy and political-warfare professionals maintain that senior officials are too focused on tactics to think strategically.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. effort to persuade the rest of the world has been a disaster. "The American public-information campaign is a confused mess," lamented former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke a month after al-Qaeda terrorists toppled New York City's World Trade Center towers. Among the problems, Holbrooke said, were "the failure to open a sustained public discussion with key Muslim intellectuals over how the Koran has been twisted by extremists into an endorsement of murder, the failure to publicize the fact that hundreds of those killed in the World Trade Center were Muslims [and] the failure to find credible, Arabic-speaking Muslims to speak the truth about [0sama] bin Laden."

A year-and-a-half later, the situation hasn't improved, a case in point being the recent scandal surrounding the White House's controversial Muslim-outreach program, which critics allege has been hijacked by pro-terrorist militants at the expense of moderate Islamic figures [see "Undermining the War on Terror," March 18-31]. A recent presidential executive order points toward change [see sidebar], but frustration remains high at the White House. Asked by INSIGHT about the State Department's public-diplomacy efforts, a senior National Security Council official burst into an exasperated stream of profanities: "No one f--knows what they're f--doing at [State's Bureau of] Public Diplomacy."

In fairness to Beers, she inherited a broken public-diplomacy apparatus, and the administration as a whole has failed on the diplomatic and hearts-and-minds front. U.S.--run cultural and educational facilities around the world, called America Houses, as well as valuable English-language libraries, were shut down after the Cold War and never revitalized. Scholarships for foreign students to study in the United States fell from their Reagan-era peak of 20,000 a year to about 900.

"People inside are afraid to take initiative" a Pentagon official tells INSIGHT. "They are afraid to put their names on aggressive proposals. They saw what happened before and don't want it to happen to them" the official added, referring to the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) at the Department of Defense, an innovative unit that lasted only four months before jealous public-affairs officials shut it down after a well-timed and phony leak to the New York Times. To Beer's credit, senior Pentagon officials tell INSIGHT, she took a positive approach to OSI's clandestine and semisecret operational plans, worked cooperatively with the OSI leadership and signed off on its early operations.

But OSI was killed in its crib, and Beers and the rest of the government floundered. …

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