September 20, 2007

September 20, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Spread the word

Clearly, judging by his most recently released tape Osama bin Laden "had some work done," as they say. Sporting a newly darkened beard, he reminded the world on the anniversary of September 11 that he's still around, three years after his last appearance.

The interpretation of the strange emanation offered by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes in Monday's Washington Post is that radical Islam is in fact losing public support across the world, and that bin Laden is trying to rally his supporters. This would perhaps not be entirely surprising given what it has to offer - death, destruction and violent oppression even of Muslims themselves.

"What is new," so she writes, "is the dramatic decline in his standing in majority-Muslim countries. Polls in the two nations that have suffered some of the worst of al-Qaeda's violence - Afghanistan and Iraq - show that more than 90 percent of those populations have unfavorable views of al-Qaeda and of bin Laden himself." This decline is not limited to those two countries, but registers throughout the Muslim world, where support for suicide bombings - according to the Pew Global Attitudes project - are down. Five years ago, 74 percent of Lebanese thought suicide bombing was an acceptable tactic. Today, the number is down to 37 percent, too much, but certainly a change. In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Jordan the story is the same.

While these trends present a great opportunity for the United States and its allies in the war on terror, whether America's public diplomacy programs actually can take credit for any of this sea change is open to debate.

Under Mrs. Hughes a good deal of work has been done to remedy some of the damage done when the U.S. Information Agency was folded into the State Department in 1999. Yet, while Mrs. Hughes extols the empowering of young Arabs by teaching them English, the Bush administration has shortsightedly proposed effective cuts in its international broadcasting budget at a time when growth is needed.

In the 2008 state and foreign operations appropriations bill, which is currently in conference, Congress added $14 million to the president's budget for international broadcasting for a total budget of $682.3 million for 2008. This has meant not only a reduction in languages (Georgian, for instance), but also the elimination of English-language programs.

Now, the decision to allocate money for international broadcasting rests with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), on which Mrs. Hughes serves as one of nine members, representing the secretary of state. Originally created to establish a firewall of protection between the State Department and the international broadcasters, the best known of which are Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, the board has unfortunately become part of the problem. With no strong executive, each board member has his own fiefdom of services.

What is needed in the fight for hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the world is coordinated leadership from the White House. On the BBG, Congress needs to rewrite its charter to give a strong board chairman the power and control to be a real executive, who reports not only to the board, but also to the White House, from which public diplomacy strategy ought to emanate. Also very much needed is interagency coordination at the level of the National Security Council, with a sense of urgency that accompanies a top national security objective.

Presidential leadership and NSC coordination had everything to do with the success of U.S. public diplomacy in the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. In a paper released this week by the Heritage Foundation, "Public Diplomacy and the Cold War: Lessons Learned," Carnes Lord argues precisely this point.

Under Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, the leadership on public diplomacy would come from the White House. National Security Directive 77, "Management of Public Diplomacy Relative to National Security," established an interagency Special Planning Group under the national security adviser. This group had oversight of various planning committees, including the Public Affairs Committee and the International Broadcasting Committee. At this time, the State Department was also brought in as a full partner, one of whose key activities was "Project Democracy," announced by Mr. Reagan in his famous "ash heap of history" speech at Westminster in 1982.

By pushing for such changes, President Bush and his team could enable his successor to grapple more effectively with the challenges of a world where ideological and religious struggles will remain fundamental foreign policy challenges.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times