It is widely believed among academics who study the subject, and among former practitioners, that public diplomacy has not achieved its full potential, and we are hopeful that the Obama Administration will now solve some of its problems. This essay focuses on the most important challenges, which in many ways concern broadcasting to the Arab world.
Public diplomacy is of course not a panacea. America’s foreign policy decisions such as the Iraq war, or its policies at home such as the Patriot Act and Guantanamo detentions, have been strongly criticized abroad, undermining our international reputation and respect. Public diplomacy by itself cannot eliminate all criticism of our policies. It can only help to mitigate objections by explaining the U.S. government’s reasons for these policies, and by reminding foreign audiences of the aspects of America they still admire, in its society, culture and political system.
It is also true that the election of Barack Obama, which has generated a generally positive reaction around the world, will not by itself burnish America’s tarnished image abroad. His new policies may help, but misunderstandings of the United States will continue, out of ignorance or deliberate distortion. Public diplomacy programs can help present an accurate picture of America to foreign audiences, a task more important than ever in this age of 24/7 information proliferation.
What are the systemic problems hindering U.S. public diplomacy and how can the Obama Administration fix them?
Engaging with Arabic broadcasting
The worldwide proliferation of satellite television over the past decade provided an opportunity that the Bush administration missed, at least at first. Although al-Jazeera started in 1996 and quickly became the most popular Arabic news channel, Washington officials ignored it until after 9/11 when it broadcast statements by Osama bin Laden that were picked up by American commercial networks. The U.S. blamed the messenger and tried to get al-Jazeera to change by putting pressure on the station’s sponsor, the Qatari government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell complained to Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in October 2001 that the station was helping bin Laden by broadcasting his messages uncritically, but Sheikh Hamad deflected the complaint, saying it was misdirected because al-Jazeera was a private station. Powell again complained to Qatar about al-Jazeera in April 2004, after the invasion of Iraq, saying that it was inciting Arab audiences to violence against American troops, which undermined U.S.-Qatari relations. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also accused Al-Jazeera of "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting," and other officials echoed these charges. Moreover, American officials imposed an unannounced boycott on al-Jazeera, preventing senior officials from participating in its programs.
This ineffective policy of trying to fight al-Jazeera was reversed later by Karen Hughes when she became Undersecretary of State in 2005. She realized that the boycott was harming American public diplomacy efforts more than helping them, and voices explaining and defending American policy were not being heard, so she encouraged officials to engage proactively with Arab media, and they did so. She also established “media hubs” in Dubai and London staffed with public diplomacy professionals who jousted with Arab media full time. As the situation in Iraq deteriorated, for example, and critics all over the world and especially in the Arab countries blamed the United States for the lack of security, lack of services and generally chaotic conditions there, Karen Hughes herself and other senior officials participated in talk shows on Arab media in an effort to explain the American point of view. When the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict broke out in the summer of 2006, and criticism of Washington’s posture became intense, they again worked hard to engage in a discussion of American policy.
Working-level public diplomacy professionals continued to participate in discussions in Arabic and English with Arab media. Alberto Fernandez, a fluent Arabic speaker responsible for public diplomacy in the Near East Bureau at the State Department, was particularly active, speaking by phone usually several times each day with Arab broadcasting outlets, making the American case in a sophisticated and persuasive way. The return to engagement with Arabic media was a significant improvement in our public diplomacy effort that took place on Karen Hughes’ watch, although it has fallen off somewhat since she left her position in 2007, and her successor James Glassman focused more on the Internet. For example during the 2009 Gaza crisis, when criticism of the United States again increased, outreach to Arab television did not increase significantly.
Such outreach has been effective and should be sustained. There are encouraging indications that Barack Obama understands this. In his first week as President, he gave an exclusive interview to al-Arabiya Television, one of the leading regional Arab TV channels, in which he spoke directly to Arabs and Muslims in a way that was sensitive to their concerns. Prominent Arab commentators welcomed Obama’s choice of an Arab TV channel for one of his first interviews.
BBG Arabic broadcasting
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is responsible for all of the U.S. Government’s international broadcasting, has also made several missteps since 9/11 that have seriously harmed American public diplomacy. The Congress in 1999 abolished the U.S. Information Agency that then controlled all government civilian broadcasting, and turned it over to the nine-member bipartisan BBG. The intent was to isolate it from political influence, but in practice, the BBG has been an irresponsible steward of America’s broadcasting assets. It has turned out to be so independent that its members have taken decisions on their own that have caused consternation and protest among many people who believe the quality and effectiveness of programming has declined. What has the BBG done?
In March 2002, the BBG cancelled the Voice of America’s Arabic Service that had been operating successfully since World War II, and substituted “Radio Sawa,” that broadcast mostly popular music for young listeners. The VOA Arabic Service had provided a broad spectrum of news, current affairs, features and other programs intended to appeal not only to youth but to all age groups including influential adults. When it was cancelled in 2002 it was reportedly reaching more than three million Arab adults on medium wave and short wave, including nearly half a million Saudis. The move towards youth-oriented programming came at the expense of reaching decision makers and politically influential adults. Critics of Radio Sawa said it abandoned these listeners, undermining the public diplomacy impact of Arabic broadcasting.
Then in February 2004, the BBG established a new Arabic language television channel, al-Hurra, intended to compete with al-Jazeera and other Arabic news channels. The BBG argued that al-Hurra would provide accurate information and truthful commentary in an environment that they claimed was both hostile to the U.S. and insufficiently “free.” But this project turned out to be a disappointment because of its poor programming and poll data showing that it failed to attract a significant audience. Moreover, its basic rationale was thrown into doubt when viewers who watched it found that it was less willing to tackle controversial subjects than al-Jazeera and other satellite TV channels. Independent observers have concluded that al-Hurra has failed. A study by the University of Southern California in 2008, for example, found al-Hurra’s journalism was weak, lacked relevance to the audience, and was perceived to be biased propaganda.
In the past, U.S. Government broadcasting faced the fundamental question of how to balance policy advocacy with good journalism. Effective public diplomacy should always be truthful to be credible, as Edward R. Murrow famously argued, but as a government-sponsored instrument it also has an obligation to help disseminate and explain U.S. policies. The VOA managed successfully to combine those two goals. The VOA Charter said: “As an official radio, VOA will present the policies of the United States Government clearly and persuasively.” But it added: “VOA will also present responsible discussion and opinion of these policies.” And it stressed the requirement of journalistic objectivity, saying VOA must be “a consistently reliable an authoritative source of news” that is “accurate, objective and comprehensive.” It said VOA must “represent America, not any single segment of American society. It will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of American thought and institutions.” The VOA repeatedly demonstrated that it could balance policy advocacy with good journalism. For example it covered the Vietnam War including the My Lai massacre in 1969 and then Watergate, telling the story honestly, but while also advocating U.S. policy.
Radio Sawa and al Hurra have struggled unsuccessfully to fuse information and advocacy broadcasting. Al-Hurra at first veered too far in the advocacy direction, and then when a new director tried to expand its journalistic freedom in 2007, he was fired for giving too much air time to Hassan Nasrallah. The new stations have not found the proper balance that VOA had developed over a period of more than six decades.
Moreover, the BBG compounded the problem by deciding to pay for these new Arabic stations and stepped-up broadcasting to Iran by shifting money in the budget from more successful broadcasts to other parts of the world, rather than by asking Congress for new funding. This decision was taken in the context of the prevailing atmosphere in Washington in which senior officials of the Bush administration were focused so intently on Bush’s Global War on Terror and the Iraq and Afghanistan military conflicts, that other parts of the world appeared secondary.
The BBG seems to have followed this lead, and was willing to make major cuts in broadcasting to other parts of the world. Each year since 2002, the BBG has proposed cuts in language services for non-Middle East programming, affecting more than a dozen services. For example, it cut the Russian service in 2008 just twelve days before Russia invaded Georgia, and it eliminated Hindi, which alone had 8 million listeners. The BBG has also reduced worldwide English from a 24/7 service to fourteen hours per day, and even proposed eliminating it altogether. Critics were especially shocked that the BBG would even consider canceling English, since it is our native language, spoken worldwide, and used by Russia, France and other countries in their broadcasting. Observers said the BBG was making a big mistake to reduce non-Middle East broadcasting rather than asking Congress for more money.
The BBG was created to be independent but it has become a small fiefdom beholden to a few narrow interests and in practice unaccountable because few outside the Board have paid attention to it. Congressional staffers say publicly that the system is broken. For example, Radio Sawa and al Hurra were the brainchild of Norman Pattiz, a wealthy American radio broadcasting executive who was appointed to the Board by President Clinton and who after 9/11 single-handedly persuaded the Board to create them. Few members of Congress paid much attention to the project, and none of them had Arabic language skills to be able to evaluate it independently of what Pattiz told them.
The BBG system should be reformed, at least with a clear mandate and the addition of independent review boards. Radio Sawa and al-Hurra should be basically reformed. Congress has invested more than half a billion dollars in them so far and we deserve to have effective public diplomacy instruments for that kind of money.
The military-civilian imbalance
Since 9/11, the U.S. military for the first time has dramatically expanded its effort to communicate with foreign audiences. But this has created new problems.
It is new that the Pentagon now has important information programs for foreign audiences. In the past, between World War II and the end of the 20th century, civilian agencies of government were solely responsible for communicating with foreign publics. Department of Defense (DOD) information programs were almost entirely confined to American audiences, and intended to make the case for support and funding. Pentagon officials worked closely with Hollywood to help film makers present the U.S. military in a positive light. To cite only one example among many, the 1968 film The Green Berets starring John Wayne was filmed for 107 days at Fort Benning, and DOD loaned the producer airplanes, helicopters, troops and technical advisors. The government received only $18,623.64 for this support, which may have cost more than a million dollars.
The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) was always intended exclusively for American military personnel stationed abroad. Occasionally, for example in 1990 when American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Desert Storm war, there was a substantial “shadow audience” of Saudi listeners to AFRTS programs, but the programs were not intended for them. The Pentagon’s only communication program directed at foreign audiences were clandestine psychological operations (“psyops”) aimed specifically at an enemy in wartime to support short term military objectives, such as programs targeted at Iraqi troops in Desert Storm to persuade them to surrender.
But recently DOD has dramatically expanded media operations directed at foreign audiences, primarily as a result of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Immediately after the U.S. military destroyed the Iraqi army, Pentagon officials established the first post-Saddam television station and newspaper in order to help disseminate American official views to the Iraqi people. They then dominated the Coalition Provisional Authority which passed Iraqi media laws and then enforced them, shutting down Iraqi newspapers that the U.S. Government regarded as hostile to the occupation. Pentagon officials in Iraq disseminated information daily explaining military successes, describing development and humanitarian assistance, and correcting errors in the Arab press.
DOD information programs directed at Arab audiences continued in Iraq even when the United States turned sovereignty over to the Iraqis in June 2004. In 2005 it was revealed that the Pentagon had hired a private contractor, the Lincoln Group, to pay Iraqi editors clandestinely to run positive stories about the US occupation. DOD officials said this was necessary in time of war. Civilian State Department public diplomacy officials, however, regarded this as contrary to best practices and harmful to their efforts. Story placement should not involve payment, and should not be clandestine.
The Pentagon was able to expand into information activities because it has huge budgets that are fungible and sufficient personnel. The Defense Department’s central role is war-fighting, but the Pentagon has gone way beyond that and taken up information programs directed broadly at foreign populations, for which it is not trained or equipped. Information programs directed at civilians were not only unusual for DOD, they were directed at fighting the Global War on Terror, a much narrower mandate than that of traditional public diplomacy. Because the Bush administration has declared a “war” on terrorism that is worldwide, and that there are wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is sometimes assumed that information programs should be taken over by the Pentagon. Certainly the Defense Department does have a proper role in conducting psyops operations against identified enemies. But this “mission creep,” justified by some in DOD as necessary in wartime, has gotten way out of hand. Both of President Bush’s Secretaries of Defense, Rumsfeld and Gates, have recognized that. They both publicly expressed concern that the Pentagon has taken over too much of the information effort that ought to be done by civilian agencies. The primary responsibility for public diplomacy media operations should be restored to the State Department.
The neglected advisory function
A major role of public diplomacy is providing advice to policy makers on foreign opinion and the probable reaction of foreign publics to proposed courses of action. As a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, U.S. Information Agency (USIA) Director Edward R. Murrow told President Kennedy that he needed from then on to be “in on the take offs as well as the crash landings,” so Murrow was then included in policy discussions. But it has been more typical for policy makers to ignore advice on foreign public opinion. President George W. Bush in particular seemed uninterested in foreign opinion, and his administration made little use of public diplomacy professionals as monitors and analysts of it.
The Obama Administration should recognize that public diplomacy professionals and other diplomats working at embassies around the globe work every day at analyzing local public opinion, and they could provide very useful advice if the Washington leadership asked for it. When President Obama spoke to al-Arabiya TV on January 26, he said he had instructed his new Middle East envoy George Mitchell to “start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.” That is a good sign.
Leadership of American public diplomacy was unfortunately fragmented by the 1999 Congressional legislation that abolished the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). For five decades, 1953-99, the USIA Director had budget and personnel authority over all public diplomacy professionals in Washington and abroad. With the 1999 change, the Undersecretary of State was only the nominal successor to the USIA director but that position controlled only a tiny staff and had essentially no budget or personnel authority over the public diplomacy professionals scattered around the Department or at embassies abroad.
The Bush Administration showed little interest in or understanding of public diplomacy. When George W. Bush became president, he left this Undersecretary position vacant, only filling it after 9/11, when he suddenly became aware that foreign relations needed to be dealt with. But then he appointed to that position Charlotte Beers, whose only experience was in advertising and public relations. She had no prior experience at all in public diplomacy, diplomacy, government or foreign affairs. Secretary Powell said he appointed Beers because she had persuaded him to buy Uncle Ben’s Rice. Powell failed to understand that public diplomacy is much more complicated than public relations or domestic commercial marketing of a product.
After 9/11, public diplomacy professionals at embassies all over the world were discussing foreign policy issues every day with their contacts. But Charlotte Beers thought that it was not her responsibility to deal at all with foreign policy. She believed instead that her task was to talk to foreign audiences only about American society and values. She tried several new projects designed to “brand” America, including an expensive “shared values” media campaign and a new Arabic magazine called “Hi,” both of which were judged to be failures and were soon discontinued. She became frustrated with a lack of measurable success and resigned in early March 2003 after less than 17 months in the position.
After a hiatus she was followed by Margaret Tutwiler, who had been Department spokesperson and ambassador to Morocco. Tutwiler disappointed public diplomacy professionals when she told Congressional committees that she did not need additional funding. She stayed for only eight months and then abruptly resigned also.
The third Undersecretary was Karen Hughes, who had been a Texas television reporter and a close advisor to President Bush. Hughes made some modest improvements in public diplomacy, expanding the exchange program and starting some valuable new educational efforts. As noted above, she encouraged engagement with Arab media. She also initiated some useful media projects, such as the Rapid Reaction Unit that monitored foreign media and provided guidance on it, and the Digital Outreach Team that engaged with foreign bloggers. But she stayed only two years (September 2005 – October 2007), and her efforts to deal with DOD and the BBG did not succeed. James Glassman, another media person, became Bush’s last Undersecretary in June 2008. He tried to use the web in new ways, but continued a narrow focus on fighting terrorism, rather than supporting broader objectives. And since the Bush administration ended in January 2009, Glassman stayed in the job only six months. None of Bush’s four Undersecretaries achieved anything like the stature of Edward R. Murrow (1961-64) who is remembered as the USIA director who understood public diplomacy best.
The State bureaucracy
U.S. public diplomacy has also been hampered by the cumbersome State Department bureaucracy that weighs it down unnecessarily and makes it inefficient. This was another result of the 1999 merger of USIA into State. The move was intended to bring public diplomacy closer to policy making, but scattering USIA’s public diplomacy professionals around the Department has not increased public diplomacy input into policy, and it also had the negative effect of undermining cohesion within the public diplomacy profession. Like consular or economic work at embassies, public diplomacy is a specialty best learned on the job over time, not by osmosis.
While USIA had a large and coherent group of professionals who had spent their entire careers developing proficiency in public diplomacy skills, after 1999 the individual public diplomacy officers found themselves mostly buried under layers of bureaucracy with extensive requirements for clearances and red tape. Public diplomacy officers at embassies around the world had been line officers with considerable program and budget authority, able to act quickly and creatively to deal with a changing environment. After 1999 they became staff officers working under centralized embassy administrations and dealing with a puzzling array of offices at the State Department in Washington, instead of one USIA desk officer. The removal of the USIA eliminated a powerful advocate in Washington for individual public affairs officers in the field, who in the past could appeal for support to the USIA Director if necessary; the position of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy has been an unsatisfactory substitute. Congress and many in the State Department have failed to recognize that public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy have different functions and steps should be taken to strengthen the corps of public diplomacy professionals. 
Public diplomacy professionals and other officials ought to engage actively with all Arab media that they have access to. Officials should not hesitate to participate in discussions on media channels because of a perceived hostile bias, nor should they favor “friendly” ones, because they should be willing to discuss and debate anyone. For practical purposes, they should give priority to 24/7 news channels with wide audience reach like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Officials should not avoid discussing sensitive issues like Gaza where strong criticisms of American policy will be expressed because it is the task of public diplomacy professionals to explain what is behind American policy decisions and how the American public sees the issues.
Radio Sawa and al-Hurra television should be substantially reformed in several ways. Their mandate should be clarified along the lines of the VOA charter. High quality talent should be hired to manage programs in a balanced way following the charter. Independent review committees composed of bilingual professional journalists who are familiar with both America and the Arab world should be established to monitor output periodically against the revised mandate, and transcripts should be made freely available. Programming should be designed to appeal to a wide variety of target audiences, presenting serious material with a minimum of entertainment. The primary programming niche for both outlets should be focused on American culture, society, politics and policy, and less on foreign news.
Funding for international broadcasting should be increased to allow important services such as worldwide English and key language services to be maintained even as targeted broadcasting to priority areas like the Middle East continues.
The State Department’s primacy in public diplomacy should be restored, with the Pentagon information function confined to its traditional role in wartime psyops and information for American audiences. Within the Department, most of the officers in the public diplomacy career track should be staffed to public diplomacy departments, not scattered around the organization. And the department should draw on this strengthened cadre of public diplomacy professionals to fill most of the public affairs and public diplomacy positions abroad.
William A. Rugh was a Foreign Service Officer for 31 years, during which he had several USIA assignments in Washington and abroad, and two as U.S. ambassador. He has published books and articles on public diplomacy, and has been teaching graduate courses in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School.