November 21, 2008 | Commentary on Internet And Technology, National Security and Defense

President-elect Obama, we need a new kind of public diplomacy

"More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a media battle, a race for the hearts and minds. ..."

Was that President Bush talking about the war on terrorism? No. It's Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's deputy and al Qaeda's ideological leader describing their war on the West.

Islamist terrorists are deadly serious about their use of media and are as Internet savvy as any American telemarketer. They use the latest technologies and techniques - from press releases to video clips, full-length films and TV programs - to create an alternate reality that, as Zawahiri says, will win "hearts and minds" to their cause.

America is not well prepared to wage and win this conflict of ideas. We lack the focus and means to convince people around the world of the rightness of our cause of freedom.

Part of the problem is bureaucratic. No single U.S. agency is responsible for coordinating and implementing an effective public diplomacy strategy.

The State Department division responsible for information outreach does not coordinate its efforts adequately with the Pentagon's sophisticated information operations.

Jim Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is trying to improve the interagency process with a counterterrorism communications center - the Global Strategic Engagement Center. But he lacks the authority to raise cooperation to the level needed.

There are other bureaucratic obstacles. Overseas public diplomacy officers operate under the authority of the chiefs of mission and report to regional bureau managers in Washington, not to Mr. Glassman.

Their instructions and budgets are stove-piped, often insulated from guidance from and accountability to the undersecretary. They often lack sufficient language skills, and their duties are often unrelated to public diplomacy. No wonder the vacancy rate for public diplomacy billets in 2007 was 22 percent.

Foggy Bottom falls far behind the private sector in communications skills and tactics. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office criticized the State Department for failing to evaluate the impact its communications efforts had on target audiences. It didn't poll target groups or analyze focus group data to determine how its messages resonated with foreign publics.

The biggest problem is a failure of overall leadership. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees U.S.-funded civilian international broadcasting, is conflicted by different agendas.

In 2006, it refused a U.S. Agency for International Development request to run programming that told America's foreign assistance story. It also rebuffed a request from the Pentagon's combatant commanders to carry public service announcements highlighting its assistance to foreign publics.

Whatever the reasons for such decisions, explaining America's purpose and policies does not appear to be the top priority.

As media pros Tony Blankley and Helle Dale explain in a new Heritage Foundation paper, America needs a strategic communications strategy - one that puts front and center the job of clearly explaining its purpose and policies to foreign publics.

They recommend establishing a U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications led by a director who reports to the president. It would be the focal point for all U.S. informational outreach, developing strategies and doctrines, overseeing U.S. broadcasting, and administering grants to nonprofit groups engaged in information activities. It would take over the State Department's public diplomacy and BBG's broadcasting assets. State would retain only its public affairs duties.

One of the major tasks of this new agency would be to coordinate public diplomacy efforts with the U.S. military at the country and regional levels through the combatant commands. This would greatly clarify America's message of freedom to people in war zones and where the military is responding to massive disasters.

At the end of the day, strategic communications - the sum total of the government's efforts to influence foreign opinion - is bigger than public diplomacy. It also must explain the purposes of foreign policy to Americans.

Americans are understandably averse to government "propaganda," if propaganda means deception and manipulation. This is not the same thing as the government explaining to citizens what it is trying to accomplish with their tax dollars. Safeguards for telling the truth can be found to prevent abuse.

Many of these ideas are reflected in legislation sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, and Reps. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, and William M. "Mac" Thornberry, Texas Republican.

Some members of Congress also support overturning the Cold War-era Smith-Mundt Act, which restricts the State Department from disseminating U.S. public diplomacy materials domestically.

President-elect Barack Obama has professed a commitment to improving public diplomacy. He should give these recommendations serious consideration. With enemies like al-Zawahri, we must stop tying one hand behind our back in this war of ideas.

Kim Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century" (2008).

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in The Washington Times