April 14, 2005

A Message From Ungar

Former Voice of America director Sanford Ungar goes to bat for his old agency in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, providing one side of a doubtless many-sided argument about the future of American public diplomacy.

This is a subject that gets media attention from time to time, but because by definition public diplomacy is supposed to generate press only outside the United States it gets little sustained attention from Congress (or in the blogosphere, including from bloggers with much better sources than mine). A case like the one Ungar makes, for more funding and a focus on rebuilding the VOA, is likely to be waved off by about 533 of the 535 members of Congress unless it is embraced by the Bush administration. This might happen, or it might not.

The administration has attempted twice to give new leadership to public diplomacy at the State Department, first by appointing as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy an advertising executive named Charlotte Beers, and later by giving the post to State Department veteran Margaret Tutwiler. Neither seems to have made much of an impact (Tutwiler bailed out after only a few months), and the administration turned last month to Karen Hughes, a Bush intimate from his campaigns.

I've regarded the Hughes appointment as among the weakest of the second term. The West Wing notwithstanding, electioneering hands rarely make a smooth transition to policy work; they are too apt to think what works on the campaign trail will work just as well in government, and in the Bush administration this is probably a greater temptation than in most others. The State Department has put only one item about the Hughes appointment on the Under Secretary's section of its web site -- the statements of Secretary Rice and Karen Hughes on the day she was nominated a month ago -- and it is not encouraging:

"I cannot imagine anything more exciting than the opportunity to share the America I know with the people of the world, a country whose strength is our goodhearted people, a country where children, including my granddaughter, went door to door to collect money to help victims of the tsunami half a world away, where volunteers deliver meals to shut-ins and offer food to the homeless and visit prisoners, and where our government contributes billions to fight AIDS and improve basic services like water, electricity and health care that touch people's lives throughout the world."

This is the kind of self-congratulatory thing campaigning politicians say to American voters and very like the message Ms. Hughes in particular was accustomed to repeating, over and over for months at a time, about Mr. Bush during his campaigns for governor and President. Outside the borders of the United States it won't get us anywhere.

Ungar has a point to make about public diplomacy, beyond his complaints about cuts in the VOA budget, interference from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and diversion of resources to doubtful ventures like the al Hurra television channel in Iraq. I would summarize his point in this way: don't be too damn clever. Don't think that fiddling with how the American government presents itself when it speaks to foreign audiences is going to bring about revolutions or make people love us. Don't think that bright ideas from emigre' groups or aspiring ambassadors on the BBG can be indulged without risk to the reputation for reliability that American public diplomacy should always aspire to. Don't identify the head of any one administration with the United States.

Do act on the knowledge that many of the things that made American public diplomacy successful in the past will work just as well now. Do recognize that one of America's greatest advantages is the English language. Do understand above all that public diplomacy is for the long haul.

I rather doubt that Karen Hughes will see acting on this message as the way to make her mark at the State Department and would be unsurprised if a year and change from now she were back in Texas, having left American public diplomacy in about the same condition it is now. I would of course be delighted to be proven wrong.

Posted by at April 14, 2005 11:12 PM | TrackBack (2)

Ms. Hughes's statement does have a Disney-channel quality to it, but I am not as bearish about it as you are. (Well, except for the bit about visiting prisoners.)

Part of what VOA should be doing is depicting an ongoing interconnected world -- because images of free assembly, unrestricted travel, relevant elections and successful commerce really are the best advertising for America. Just in the course of doing that, there will be ample opportunities to show the hand of America at work.

Your "do" list is correct and crucial. It's painful to see how we have apparently neglected these basics.

Posted by: sammler at April 15, 2005 08:58 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This strikes me as another "shock value" appointment, done to demonstrate the "importance" of communicating the American message to the world. Whether Hughes knows what she's doing in this kind of job is beside the point. Bush wanted to make a statement, rather than an appointment.

I will admit I just could be wrong on this. Hughes is one of Bush's trusted advisors. He might really think this is very important, and is putting one of his mosted trusted people there to see that it gets done right. I wonder, though, whether he understands what metrics he should be using to determine whether Hughes is getting the job done right.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at April 15, 2005 02:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Are you trying to put us to sleep? What happened to Zathras?

Posted by: thibaud at April 15, 2005 04:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, I liked this. It sounds just like Zathras to me, just with a little more elbow room. Keep in mind that writing a blog post is very different from writing a blog comment. That difference is painfully obvious with my other (former) favorite Drezner commenter, Oldman.

Posted by: fling93 at April 15, 2005 07:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is the difference between riffing off someone else's thought or idea, and coming out and stating your idea right from the starting gate. A good comment can be tossed off. A good blog post really can't be. (This is why I have never succumbed to the blogging urge.)

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at April 15, 2005 08:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Also, public diplomacy is important. Public diplomacy is worthy. Public diplomacy is vegetables. Dessert comes later.

Posted by: JEB at April 15, 2005 08:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1. Karen Hughes is easy to underestimate at first glance, but she usually wins.
2. The State Department's propaganda effort could not be less effective. They are getting killed by the likes of Al Jazzera and BBC, for heavens sake. So there is nowhere to go but up.
3. Ms. Hughes brings extra value in realpolitik ways. She can remark to Mubarek, say, "That disc jockey on Radio Cairo at 7:00 every morning spews Hate America in unacceptable quantities," and the guy will mysteriously change his tune the next day. Mubarek won't KNOW she is going to rat on him if he doesn't perform, but he knows she CAN. And he probably wants his $2 or $3 billion every year from U.S. taxpayers to continue. Karon's connection with George W. Bush lends gravitas to her mission, inevitably. It shows the President is interested in what she's doing, not just Condi.

Posted by: exguru at April 16, 2005 09:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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