From Adam Garfinkle
The new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman, delivered his maiden speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on July 2. (It may be viewed at the end of this post; a transcript is here.) As one might expect, it was mainly about how to win “the war of ideas” supposedly at the core of the War on Terror, the main mission (or so it would seem from the flow of rhetoric) of that office since September 11, 2001. The speech did not get much press attention for essentially three reasons. The first is that the Bush Administration is effectively over, so few credit the possibility that yet another Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs could accomplish anything significant in a mere six months. The second is that it’s summer. The third is that the speech wasn’t very good.
|MESH Updater: James K. Glassman replies to this post in a comment here.|
Ah, but our indefatigable effendis at MESH noticed it all the same, and have asked me, as one of several MESH members who have evinced an interest over the years in public diplomacy, to comment. I can sum up my view fairly simply: Glassman represents a significant intellectual advance in that office over his several predecessors, but that’s almost beside the point. Let me explain why.
The Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (“R” for short, for no obvious reason I can think of) is one of seven officials on that level in the State Department, there being five other undersecretaries and the Counselor. Beneath R are three “boxes”: an assistant secretary for education and cultural affairs (ECA); an assistant secretary for public affairs (PA), and a coordinator for international information programs (IIP). ECA’s main business is handling the Fulbright Program and other cultural and educational exchange programs. PA handles press briefings and other domestic outreach functions. IIP produces and disseminates foreign language versions of official statements, reports and documents.
All three are necessary functions, and what ECA does is arguably important at a higher level. But when you think of the war of ideas in the struggle with international Islamist terrorism, ask yourself into which of those three boxes the task of doing the conceptual thinking to wage that war would logically fall? Now answer yourself, if you haven’t already done so, “none of the above.”
Of course, other parts of the State Department do monitor what is said about the United States in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, and do speak back. Our embassies listen and report to their respective geographical bureaus in Washington, but since Muslims live in South Asia and Europe and elsewhere as well as the Middle East, no one place receives and analyzes this data together. INR (Intelligence and Research) also cares what is said and written, but its staff has a thousand things to do, none of them involving a response to Muslims in the Middle East or anywhere else. Alhurra and Radio Farda have a role in speaking back, of course, but, as components of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), they are not part of the State Department. “R” has a statutory vote on the IBB board of governors, but little to no influence over what they actually do largely because he has no real grip on their budgets.
What this means is that, conceptual thinking about public diplomacy (PD) aside, the State Department lacks even the functional equivalent of a gaffe squad. Something false and negative gets said or written about the United States in Damascus or Khartoum or Ramallah—like the CIA is infecting Muslim children with AIDS, for example—and it is no one’s job in Washington to get inside the news cycle in that Muslim country and set the record straight. Embassies sometimes try to do this on the spot, but foreign service officers are for the most part trained to analyze and report, not to be proactive in in-country debates; only the Public Affairs officials in an embassy, often the most junior personnel in the mission, are supposed to do things like that as part of their jobs. If they don’t or can’t for one reason or another, only the Ambassador, the DCM or some other senior official can do it, and these are busy people who often, for good reason, do not wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs with local media. So, as things stand now, only if a reporter asks a question at a press conference about some outrageous statement is the Department likely to generate a halfway high-level, audible response to it.
Not only is there no effective gaffe squad (despite Karen Hughes’ effort to create one), but until the middle of 2005 it was no one’s job at the State Department even to monitor developments in political Islam as such, and to be a resource in that regard for the Secretary and the Department as a whole. I know this because I’m the one who in the spring of 2004 pointed this out to the Secretary and his Chief of Staff, and I am the one who was ordered—to my own personal shock and awe, since I was only a lowly speechwriter—to go hire someone to do precisely that. I did what I was told, an INR slot was created for the purpose, and about nine months later, right on schedule, Diplomatic Security managed to give birth to the necessary security clearances….
“How can this be, nearly seven years after 9/11?” you’ll justifiably want to know. How can the State Department, and the U.S. Government, still have put in place no system to effectively organize and lead a war of ideas?
The answer has to do in part with the death and botched burial of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999. When Congress and the Clinton Administration decided together to abolish USIA, it elected to merge its functions into the State Department. Nice thought, but it never really happened. What USIA did during the Cold War—develop sophisticated propaganda without actually lying about anything—was never part of the foreign service culture, and few at State wanted or knew how to make it be a part. Besides, by 1999, eight years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, USIA itself was adrift, not sure what it was supposed to do other than take care of its Radios and the ECA exchange programs and finance a lot of high-tech upgrades for itself. It wasn’t doing a lot of conceptual thinking about public diplomacy in a post-Soviet world, but then neither was anyone else.
Now, it was the merger of USIA (minus its Radios) into the State Department that created the Undersecretariat of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs over which James Glassman now presides. Some top USIA slots were redesignated “R”, and ECA was joined to PA and IIP to make up the new Undersecretariat. (ECA was originally part of State, got transferred to USIA in 1978, and then came back to State when USIA was abolished in 1999.) Less-than-senior remaining USIA personnel were mostly bivouacked at lower levels of State’s geographical bureaus. The actual core function of USIA, however was never really integrated into the State Department’s mission, as the organization of the Undersecretariat shows.
Hence, new Undersecretaries can say anything they like about public diplomacy innovations, but even when they have strong personal support from the President, as Karen Hughes did, they lack the in-house ability to get much done. They are essentially one-man (or woman) shows, given the way their Undersecretariat is organized and staffed, and if they are not themselves clear and powerful thinkers, nothing (good) will happen. And that is precisely why after 9/11 the task of public diplomacy in the context of the war on terror migrated elsewhere: to the Defense Department doing “strategic communications,” to various White House/NSC offices (some of which have done good work), to certain parts of the intelligence community (let’s just leave it at that), and even to both the Counter-terrorism Office (S/CT) and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) inside the State Department itself.
Of course, no one was put in charge of all this, so the PD portfolio predictably became a sprawling mess. That’s why when Mr. Glassman mentioned in his July 2 speech that “in April 2006 the President designated the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy as the interagency lead in” conducting the “war of ideas,” it should have taken the oxygen out of the CFR room in New York (but probably didn’t). The first question that should have jumped to everyone’s tongue is why did it take four and half years after 9/11 for President Bush to put someone in charge of this supposedly critical function? And why, after four and half years, did he put in charge of it an office that, given its internal set-up, had no effective means of coordinating, let alone leading, anything of the kind?
The truth of the matter is that no one, not the President, the Vice President, the NSC Advisor or the Secretaries of State or Defense, ever really made public diplomacy and fighting the war of ideas a strategic priority. At State, the first R in the Bush Administration was Charlotte Beers. She was chosen by Secretary Powell, before 9/11, because he wanted to shake the place up, not least by introducing some business best-practices into an office that was, as they say in the Building, an “idea-free zone.” That might have worked, too, had it not been for 9/11, after which Ms. Beers’ “brand America” approach to political marketing could not possibly have been more counterproductive. What do the salafis rail about most effectively when they try to recruit new adepts? How soullessly materialist the West is, how all Americans care about is buying and selling and business and other sins of the flesh. “Brand America”?! Talk about pouring gasoline on a fire.
After Ms. Beers left in March 2003, leadership in R became a sometimes thing. Patricia Harrison, who had been Assistant Secretary for ECA, became acting Undersecretary until Margaret Tutwiler took the post in January 2004—only to leave just six months later for a job on the New York Stock Exchange. Pat Harrison became Acting Undersecretary again. Then the White House proposed to send over Karen Hughes to be R, but Ms. Hughes insisted on waiting nearly nine months before taking up the post (in March 2005) so that her son could first graduate from high school. She then left in December 2007. While all this coming and going was going on, of course, the United States was engaged in not just one, but arguably three wars: the GWOT, Iraq and Afghanistan. And as Mr. Glassman mentioned in his speech, it took six months for Congress to get around to voting on his nomination (for rather arcane reasons not worth going into here).
It is no wonder that with essentially no one home at the State Department for long stretches of time, and with R not organized to do conceptual thinking on public diplomacy, the function migrated elsewhere. But if anyone thinks James Glassman, however talented and experienced he is (and he is), can restructure his own Undersecretariat and achieve genuine interagency control over prosecuting the war of ideas in the next six months, please let me know who you are, because I have a bridge to sell you.
This is why what Glassman actually said in his July 2 speech is less than meets the eye, given the broader parameters of dysfunction in the public diplomacy portfolio. That’s too bad, because Glassman is the first R since 9/11 who seems to understand that the problem is not about us, but about them. It’s not a popularity contest in which poll results concerning how much Muslims like or hate us really matter (besides which the polls are mostly unreliable anyway). He understands that only Muslim voices can effectively debate with other Muslims about the role of violence in political life. He understands that we need to work mostly behind the scenes with allies both European and local. He understands that we need to engage the private sector, because the U.S. government is simply not set up to effectively employ the most powerful asset we have in the war of ideas: American society itself.
Fine, right; very nice and it’s certainly about time. But his speech itself was hardly a model of effective public diplomacy, exhibiting not just one, but five cardinal sins of how not to make a serious policy speech.
First, it’s narcissistic: Glassman begins by talking not about ideas or missions or his office or the policy of the President, but about himself. This is a turn-off. Second, the speech breaks frame by calling attention to the fact that it’s a speech, not a from-the-heart statement of purpose. There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’m here today to tell you that X…” and “X…” It’s like the difference between a genuine ritual and a mere ceremony. Third, Glassman buries his lead: He doesn’t say anything interesting until he’s nearly half finished, spending too much precious fresh-attention time on kitchen-sink stuff and too little time later on explaining what’s significant about his new approach. Fourth, Glassman botches the tone: You don’t emphasize three times how serious a task public diplomacy is and then use silly Coke/Pepsi metaphors to illustrate it—metaphors that also happen to hark back to Charlotte Beers’ unapt commercial approach to the subject. There are better ways to describe a useful shift from caring about our own popularity to focusing on the U.S. role in quietly and carefully trying to influence intra-Muslim dynamics.
And fifth, Glassman makes some incautious statements. He says, for example, “Here is our desired end state: a world in which the use of violence to achieve political, religious, or social objectives is no longer considered acceptable.” You don’t need much imagination to see what Al Qaeda, Inc. can do with that one, as in (supply your own accent): “You Americans lecture Muslims about the use of violence, but you are the ones trying to jam your godless democracy, that denies the law of God himself, down the throats of Iraqis and Afghans on the points of bayonets! If you are so much against violence, then why are American tanks and bombs every day murdering Muslim women and children?” and so on and so forth. Again, there are better ways to make the point Glassman wants to make. Doing it the wrong way is known technically in the speechwriting trade as “stepping in it.”
So what do we conclude from this? That the new R needs a better speechwriter? No: That, I think, is the least of the problem. What we ought to conclude is that the next administration needs not only to get the conceptual premises of public diplomacy right, but decide quickly how the U.S. government needs to be organized to implement its own thinking. Right now, the USG cannot put a good PD idea to work even were it to discover one—and arguably James Glassman has a few, thanks to his time spent at the IBB and his participation some years back in the Djerejian Commission on Public Diplomacy. If Glassman wants to make the most of the next six months, he’ll direct his efforts to creating an operationally coherent office capable of carrying out the President’s belated April 2006 directive. If McCain wins in November and the new Secretary of State keeps Glassman on as R, he’ll be doing himself (and not only himself) the biggest favor imaginable.
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