by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- The nomination of one of President George W. Bush's closest advisors to lead U.S. public diplomacy efforts has been met with both hope and skepticism by some leaders in the U.S. foreign policy community.
"You need someone who knows something serious about the Middle East publics and is willing to engage them on their terms," Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan and an authority on the Middle East, told IPS.
"Ms. Hughes could be effective, but she needs to get good advice from non-toady Arabs and others. There is also the question of how much you can dress up the U.S. support for Israeli occupation and annexation of Muslim lands or the U.S. heavy-handedness in Iraq. PR without policy changes is most often not very effective."
A close personal friend of the president who is credited with helping craft and deliver the messages that won him a second term, Hughes has been tapped for the post of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She will also lead the president's campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Adam Clayton Powell III, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, believes that, "Regardless of the merits of U.S. policies or the lack thereof, there is almost universal agreement that the U.S. has been woefully lacking in effectively stating its case."
"There are only a half dozen or so U.S. spokesmen who have a sufficient grasp of the Arabic language to appear on radio or television in that part of the world," he said in an interview. "That means the U.S. is not even part of the dialogue there. Anything Karen Hughes does to improve that can only advance U.S. national interests."
Hughes left the White House in 2002 to move her family back to Texas. She is a former television reporter with little experience in foreign affairs.
Hughes will need to be confirmed by the U.S Senate. Her new boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said during her own confirmation hearings that she regarded public diplomacy as a top priority.
At a subsequent hearing, Rice requested $120 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative, $40 million dollars for the National Endowment for Democracy to support the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, $180 million for Muslim outreach through educational and cultural exchanges, and funding increases for a wide range of other public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives geared toward Muslim publics, particularly young people.
Still, the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, especially in the Middle East, has been seriously questioned by a number of commissions, foundations and individual experts.
Late last year, a bipartisan commission appointed by Bush concluded that the U.S. campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was "uncoordinated and underfunded, and risk(ed) sending contradictory messages about U..S. intentions."
The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy criticized the administration and Congress for not adequately funding the communications aspects of the war on terrorism. It said that one successful initiative -- exchange programs between U.S. and foreign students -- has been burdened by 'redundant" security measures and 'excessive" visa fees.
Another group, headed by Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and now director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, reported, "Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels. What is required is not merely tactical adaptation but strategic and radical transformation."
The Brookings Institution, a highly respected Washington-based think-tank, also found U.S. communications efforts "not only under-resourced, but also lacking an effective strategic direction, particularly towards the Islamic world."
The Commission established to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks also found the U.S. unaware of the need to conduct a "war of ideas" alongside the "war on terror."
The Commission said that, beyond defeating al-Qaeda, the U.S. "must defeat a radical strain of Islamist ideology that celebrates death and destruction." The chairman of the Commission, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, testified to Congress that U.S.. public diplomacy required a complete overhaul.
Kean noted that popular opinion of the United States has fallen sharply in the Muslim world, even in nations with governments that maintain close relations with Washington.
But the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, said that no amount of U.S. public diplomacy can succeed if U.S. actions around the world are unpopular.
"Our public diplomacy fails because it is derived from a failed foreign policy," he said. "Recent polls show that Arab respondents do understand and do respect American values. But they do not see American policy reflecting those values."
"They saw the horrible pictures of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. They read about the treatment of detained prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba). So why are we surprised that there are harsh feeling towards the United States?"
U.S. public diplomacy currently has a number of components. Broadcasting activities include Radio Marti and TV Marti to Cuba, radio broadcasts to the Middle East via Radio Sawa, television broadcasts to the Middle East through its Arabic satellite channel, Al Hurra, and broadcasts to Iran in Persian.
Student and cultural exchanges are also important parts of the effort, though the numbers of foreign students attending U.S. universities has declined sharply because of security concerns that have resulted in visa delays and denials.
Prospective students from the Middle East and South Asia have said they are also concerned about discrimination against Arabs and other Muslims.
Al Hurra, the State the Department's Arabic-language TV voice in the Middle East, has attracted a relatively small audience compared to the more popular satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia. Radio Sawa is widely listened to by young people in the Middle East, reportedly because of its pop music content.
Joshua S. Fouts, executive director of the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Public Diplomacy, believes that "U.S. foreign policy will be contentious no matter how sympathetic one may be with the administration in office."
"The problems as I see it are twofold," he told IPS. First, "the U.S. government, with the dissolution of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, dismantled a highly complex infrastructure for explaining and translating U.S. policies, culture, and people, if you will, to the world."
"Problem two: U.S. public diplomacy has been woefully underfunded for years now," he said. "Nature abhors a vacuum. As a result, we have a highly decentralized approach to public diplomacy."
He added that the private sector, from corporations to NGOs, has also assumed a wider role in portraying their home country to a global audience.
"The real challenge facing the undersecretary for public diplomacy will be convening all these disparate groups," Fouts concluded. "I'm delighted that the president has selected Karen Hughes for one reason alone: It means the Bush administration takes public diplomacy seriously and has chosen a strong and competent person to address it."
March 15, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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