Bad information

Veterans of U.S. foreign information campaigns of both parties critique the administration's current efforts and bemoan the "one-liners coming out of Washington."

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Bad information

William Rugh, former ambassador to both Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, was disappointed.

Having served as director of the United States Information Agency’s Near East and South Asia bureau, with previous posts in Cairo, Egypt, Damascus, Syria, and both Jedda and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Rugh is an expert on “public diplomacy” — providing information to foreign audiences that casts the U.S. in the most favorable light. He and several of his fellow USIA alumni were chagrined at how the government had slowly been destroying the USIA in the past 15 years or so, and how worldwide public opinion was turning against the United States. So long before the war in Iraq — before 9/11, even — they scheduled a meeting with undersecretary of state for public diplomacy Charlotte Beers.

But Beers, former chairwoman of both J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, was a product of Madison Avenue, and didn’t know what she was doing, Rugh felt. “Beers was in way over her head,” he tells Salon. “My understanding was that she knew she was a square peg in a round hole from the very beginning,” he says. “She was not happy from day one in the job, and the people who worked for her were not entirely happy. She was from an entirely other culture.”

That lack of familiarity surely hurt the U.S.’s public diplomacy effort, Rugh says, since she had no particular understanding of public diplomacy, the State Department, or Congress. “She didn’t go to Congress to ask for money after 9/11.” A full year after 9/11, Rugh would still find members of the House and Senate wondering why Beers hadn’t come to ask for more money. “They were more anxious to expand the public diplomacy effort than Charlotte Beers was. They said, ‘Why isn’t she up here asking for money?’ They were ready to give it to her.”

When Rugh’s group — which included Fred Coffey, who ran field posts in Indonesia and Thailand; Stan Silverman, the USIA’s former comptroller; and Len Baldyga, past director of European affairs for USIA — met with Beers, they stressed the importance of having foreign service officers stationed around the world to help explain and shape U.S. foreign policy.



“We don’t do policy,” Beers said, according to Rugh, who found the statement clueless. (Beers, who resigned her post last month citing unspecified health problems, did not return calls or an e-mail requesting an interview.) The opinions of America held by foreign populations obviously shapes the behavior of their governments, which directly impacts foreign policy.

Even though she came from a different world and never seemed to fit into the world of Foggy Bottom, Beers ironically serves as a poster girl for how arrogance, incompetence and government bureaucracy has hampered the cause of U.S. public diplomacy. When we ask, “Why do they hate us?” one of the answers is surely that our efforts at propaganda have largely avoided the foreign policy reasons that anger, say, the Muslim and Arab worlds so much. But another reason is that other efforts to explain our side of the story have been systematically reduced. And those trying to rectify the problem — like Rugh and the other USIA veterans — have been ignored.

The group of USIA veterans had been watching the USIA and its public diplomacy mission withering on the vine for almost a generation. Rugh and his friends wanted the new administration of President Bush to rectify the problem. But Beers wasn’t receptive; she had her own ideas, like the much-derided “Shared Values Initiative” ad campaign, which Rugh calls “a terrible waste of money based upon a misunderstanding of what our public diplomacy problem is.” Instead of showing that Muslims can live happily in the U.S., the U.S. government needs more foreign service workers in the field to better explain and help shape U.S. foreign policy, he argues.

The problem began after the fall of the Soviet Union, when USIA budgets started getting cut. “USIA management had options where to take the cuts, and they took them primarily in the field,” Rugh reports. “It was a terrible mistake to cut the field officers and not the Washington office.” These decisions, he says, were made “by political appointees who knew very little about the field, [President Clinton's USIA director] Joe Duffey and others.”

In October 1999, Clinton and then-Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., folded the USIA into the State Department. Budgets were cut even further; programs were dropped; USIA field posts throughout the world were shuttered. Nancy Snow, a California State University at Fullerton professor and author of “Propaganda Inc.: Selling America’s Image to the World,” worked at USIA from 1992 to 1994. “At the end of Cold War, the sentiment was, ‘The whole world embraces our culture, why do we need a public diplomacy agency?’” she recalls. “Washington, D.C., didn’t seem to think there was a need for the government to get its message out. 9/11 was a real wake-up call.”

But how do foreign service officers affect public opinion? Charles Z. Wick, the highly regarded head of the USIA during the administration of President Reagan, says that when he left USIA in 1989, there were 218 USIA posts in 159 countries, each manned by anywhere from three to 200 or so foreign service officers, depending on the size of the nation. The officers “were specialists in public diplomacy, in contrast to the State Department, which deals in private diplomacy,” Wick says. “Our guys in the USIA were in daily touch with the whole gamut of media and political personnel in each country, people who were all anxious to get their views communicated to Washington, since our people in the field had this two-way communication.”

When USIA merged into the State Department, Wick says, “the channels of reciprocal communication between Washington and the various outside foreign service officers became more or less obliterated.”

“Our field posts would have a real sense of the pulse of the country,” Coffey attests. This “day in/day out contact” ensured that each country’s U.S. spokesman had a degree of credibility with foreign leaders — whether in the media, government or wherever. “You could sit down over some tea, listen carefully, talk about their concerns and talk about our concerns in context of their greater culture.”

Adds Coffey, who not long ago met with staffers at the White House’s Office of Global Communications headed by South Carolina political operative Tucker Eskew, “Now it’s essentially just one-liners coming out of Washington.”

Rugh offers the example of President Bush’s announcement that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The response of every American was, ‘OK, we accept that. Let’s go after al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.’ But around the world, particularly in the Arab world, people said, ‘Wait a minute! Where’s the proof? You didn’t give us any evidence that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden are responsible!’”

Part of this was rooted in Arab and Muslim embarrassment about the possible guilt of their fellow Muslims, part stemmed from a fear that they would be tarred with the same brush, but another part, Rugh says, is that “they don’t automatically believe Bush. I mean, they don’t automatically believe their own leaders.”

In the past, foreign service officers would have been in major cities throughout the globe to credibly explain the U.S. case. And while such staffers haven’t disappeared completely, their task “has been very badly hampered by a decline in personnel and a decline in coordination,” Rugh says. “We still have public affairs officers in embassies, but we used to have a lot more of them and they used to have large staffs.” This was key to shaping and explaining U.S. policies, “but Beers didn’t understand that,” Rugh says. “I said to her, ‘Public affairs officers get questions every day on policy — whether they’re in Cairo or Beijing or wherever — and we must explain ourselves to foreigners.’”

The group couldn’t get through to Beers.

Coffey had a suggestion. He had a good relationship with Wick. Wick had been recently singled out by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as a leader in the field of public diplomacy. “I don’t know of anyone who was more innovative, more creative, who understood long, long ago what you all are doing now better than Charles Wick,” Hagel said to Beers and Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, last February. “He understood it 25 years ago, what we were not doing and what we should have been doing. And he did amazing things over at USIA.”

Rugh says that “Charlie Wick, if he had been in [Beers'] job after 9/11, he would have been up on Capitol Hill on Sept. 12 asking for a doubling of the budget, more field officers and more programs and who knows what else.”

Wick was a Republican VIP; the foreign service officers were professionally political agnostics. Wick was pals with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served as Reagan’s assistant for national security affairs from December 1987 to January 1989; the USIA guys “didn’t have direct access to Powell,” Rugh says. And Wick shared their feelings about the importance of public diplomacy. So, sometime in 2001 prior to 9/11, Wick met in Washington with Rugh, Coffey, Silverman, Baldyga and Bill Maurer, the USIA’s former director of the Office of East Asia and the Pacific.

Concerned with how the mechanism for American P.R. had disintegrated, “they came to see me with these two sheets of paper that graphically showed what the channels were before, with lines crisscrossing and how it had been changed,” Wick says. “It was clear graphically why there was a difference in effective intercommunication.” The USIA veterans prepared about 20 pages of “documentation and refutations of what we thought was wrong. It was backed up by credible solutions or examples of why it was not working.”

They were proposing that Powell “create a single public diplomacy bureau within the State Department that consolidates professionals in public diplomacy who are currently scattered throughout various agencies,” Rugh explains. “It would look like the USIA but it would be within the department, and run by an assistant secretary of state who would report to the undersecretary for public diplomacy.”

Wick encouraged them to reduce it down to four or five pages. He had no problem getting an appointment to see Powell.

“I called Colin,” Wick recalls. “He was busy as hell, obviously, but he gave me an appointment.” Armed with the memo prepared by the USIA veterans, Wick went to Powell’s sixth-floor office, a place he was familiar with from the days when George Shultz served as secretary of state. After congratulating Powell, he told him he was “concerned about our public diplomacy and our deteriorating public image. I gave him this paper. I said, ‘I don’t want to burden you too much, but I’m very concerned about where we’re going.’” Powell said he wanted him to meet with Beers.

“She was very nice,” Wick says of their meeting. “But my conclusion was that in her position — even with her fabulous background in advertising — she wasn’t given enough authority.” Wick stresses that his criticism “of the State Department’s office of public diplomacy should not be construed to mask my great appreciation for the State Department and in particular for Colin Powell.”

Rugh says that he later heard that “Powell put the ideas on the table with his senior State Department officers and they weren’t enthusiastic about it and it died. Nothing was heard about it after that.”

The reason that the recommendations of Wick, Coffey and the others may have fallen on deaf ears is that not everyone shares their view that the 1999 consolidation is doomed to fail. Harold Pachios, chairman of the State Department’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, says that while he has “the highest regard for Charlie Wick” and considers him “one of the best USIA directors in the history of the agency,” he disagrees with Wick on the problem of the merging of the two agencies. “The consolidation of USIA into the State Department can work, but it’s going to take some time,” he says. The department is a “huge, slow-moving, multi-layered bureaucracy,” so patience is a necessity, Pachios says, “but in time it will work.”

Pachios, who was named chairman of the commission by Clinton in 1999, says that “Powell has done a far better job integrating public diplomacy into the State Department than his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, did.” As for Beers, Pachios says, “it’s very difficult to go into a bureaucracy when you’ve been a corporate CEO.”

In a phone interview last week, Wick continued to express his concern about the worldwide image of the United States. “Congress and/or the president have to be dramatically concerned,” he says, urging them to meet with the USIA alumni. “I know Colin very well, and I know George W. Bush quite well,” Wick says. “There’s no question in my mind that they want to do whatever is effective and right. There’s no question that they’re aware of the tremendous negative attitude toward them and the U.S. in the rest of the world, and I don’t think anyone is more perplexed than they are. So I think they would listen.”

One would think. But at least Wick and the USIA vets can perhaps find comfort in the fact that they’re not the only ones whose advice is being unheeded. In an Oval Office meeting shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the president asked Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, for advice on ways for the U.S. to combat its negative image.

Bush “asked would we prepare for him a proposal for public diplomacy and how we should modernize it, upgrade it, change it,” Biden said at a Senate hearing on Feb. 27. “And so I — and I imagine others did, too — gave the president a detailed proposal.” He never heard another word about it and assumes his proposal was set aside and dismissed.

Biden wondered if Beers ever saw it, and then said he was disappointed that all his work was apparently for naught. “I don’t mind that it wasn’t adopted,” Biden said. “I mind that it wasn’t discussed. I mind that it went nowhere.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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