Earlier this week, I received a strongly worded e-mail from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) which represents the interests of America’s career diplomats and retirees with the State Department, USAID as well as the Congress. I have been a member for years. PLS and my article “Public Diplomacy Matters More Than Ever” is in this month’s public diplomacy focus section of AFSA’s monthly “FS Journal.”
The contents of AFSA’s e-mail literally leaped out of my Inbox and off my computer screen. I haven’t seen AFSA leadership so publicly upset in a long time: the employee reps normally settle differences with State quietly, behind the scenes.
The gist of the e-mail which I found first online via The Washington Note as well as a newly established, pseudonymous anti-AFSA blog that contains – oh, my gosh - only two entries - both designed to trash AFSA because of its objections to this assignment) is that a mid-level (if that) civil servant is being assigned to a cushy job in Brussels where the person will head the Department’s new media reaction/ rapid response Europe-wide unit presumably working out of the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. I've also learned that in contrast, career FSOs are being told that no assignments will be made until all upcoming PRT team (field) vacancies in Iraq are filled. In making this new Brussels assignment, the Department – as the AFSA letter details - violated every rule in the book in tossing this plum position to a person who, if you dig just a little deeper not only has very strong neocon-founded political connections but also lacks the qualifications for the job.
AFSA did not name names in the e-mail, but turns out the individual in question is a woman named Diane Zeleny. Zeleny is, I understand, a Karen Hughes pet and one of her seven special assistants. In addition to her bevy of special assistants, Hughes also has a special advisor not to mention her Deputy Under Secretary Dina Powell and several others in that seventh floor office. Frankly, when USIA was a separate agency, I don’t recall a single director surrounded by anywhere near that many front office special assistants – political hacks, FSOs, or civil servants. How times change. But maybe I just missed something.
Before becoming one of Hughes’ pet Pomeranians, Zeleny held the title of outreach officer in the European Bureau (not exactly a lofty position and one which probably didn’t exist when I was in the Foreign Service). Before that she appears to have been a “liaison officer” in the Office of Press and Information at NATO where she seems to have spent her time arrangingmeetings for visiting community and media groups and attending international conferences in various corners of Europe.
None of these previous positions, however, suggest that she has the qualifications needed to run a fast moving, probably troubled and understaffed, new European regional Brussels-based media reaction office which in all likelihood won’t work anyway.
The neocon connection
I understand that Zeleny is married to neocon and former CIA officer (1985-94) Reuel Marc Gerecht. Gerecht, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a widely known chief “private sector” war hawk and often - although not always - propagandist for the Bush administration’s Middle East policies. Gerecht was formerly Director of the Middle East Intiative at William Kristol’s "think tank" The Project for the New American Century (founded in 1997) for a couple of years before moving over to AEI.
Gerecht’s also a pal of neo-con historian Robert Kagan, acolyte of Bernard Lewis, speaks Farsi – according to Gerecht, and is described, charitably, by Right Web as one of the neoconservative camp's foremost Middle East analysts. There are more scintillating pieces to the Gerecht story but if the Zeleny-Gerecht relationship rumor is correct, one has to ask among many other things if Gerecht’s public call for increasing US covert propaganda efforts in the Middle East via – what else – his former agency - should be so closely associated with the holder of a high visibility public diplomacy post on a continent that despises W's Middle East policies and ways of doing business.
The hype, as usual, promises more than this new office can deliver
Anyway, this new fast media Brussels-based reaction operation is yet another Karen Hughes public diplomacy initiative which – as usual – was hyped to the hilt earlier this year – but also as usual, the hype promises far more than it can ever deliver even in an Edgar Alan Poe type-morphine induced dream.
Basically, the raison d’être for such a U.S. elections/political campaign model media operation is to respond rapidly to slurs, misstatements or disinformation that are broadcast or printed in the foreign media about - in this administration - W’s controversial policies. Given this administration’s misguided – and that’s being charitable – approach to the world some of which is shaking loose in the MSM in the run-up to the November 7 elections – defending against just the most negative reviews abroad would have to be a Herculean task.
Too little, too late, too poorly funded and too poorly conceived
But the realities are that the media response operation Hughes and her minions designed and are setting in place to counter Bush’s bad press abroad is too little, too late, too poorly funded and too poorly conceived to be effective – even forgetting the policy and staffing sides for a moment.
To be headed by someone under-qualified for the job just turns a bad joke into a really dumb error.
If Ms. Zeleny wants to serve overseas on a regular basis – for which she should be subject to the career service’s worldwide availability rules – why doesn’t she just join the Foreign Service as opposed to remaining in the domestically-based Civil Service? Others have done so. Other civil servants have also played by the rules when seeking and receiving foreign service excursion assignments abroad. Instead, Zeleny's playing fast and loose with State’s personnel system based on her political connections. And why was she able to line up two career Foreign Service assignments in Brussels within the space of four years? It’s not like there weren't and aren’t qualified and willing applicants. Or better yet, if Zeleny likes Brussels so much why doesn’t she just find a permanent job there, leave the US government entirely and then my taxes won’t have to be squandered on supporting her and her family's life style in one of the world's most expensive cities?
Regardless, its clear that this newly concocted regional media response operation is just another way of attempting to counteract the staff losses on the public diplomacy front with the reductions of embassy public diplomacy officers across Europe this summer including Paris and Moscow. These reductions were made to enable Condi to staff her also under-funded transformational diplomacy effort that added mid-level and junior political, economic and public diplomacy positions in China, India and elsewhere. The Department – as far as I know – hasn’t increased the number of Foreign Service positions significantly, if at all, since Powell left in 2004.
When and How Media Reaction Once-upon-a time Worked
Foreign media reaction reports in the days when we had a functioning public diplomacy agency originated from each USIS overseas post. The compilation, selection, editing and dissemination of that information throughout the U.S. government took place in an efficient office at USIA headquarters run by a senior career Foreign Service Officer with considerable political and media skills and small professional staff.
As far as response to bad or mistaken news and editorial comments, each Embassy PAO and/or IO was responsible for setting the record straight with the appropriate editor or reporter in question. The success of this game was credibility based on trusted personal relationships developed over time.
Unveiling Disinformation Worked Too
During the Cold War, USIA also had an office in Washington that tracked disinformation stories – often concocted and planted by the KGB. The Disinformation Office staff knew from whence the false stories came and how best to counteract them. Again with great hype, Ms. Hughes – claiming yet another epiphany – recently established (or in reality reestablished) the office. Not a bad idea, but I’ve read that this old/new Washington office is staffed by one lone officer. If I’m wrong, please correct the record.
Compare this with the top-heavy number of personnel in Hughes’ own office – including Ms. Zeleny, the mid-level civil servant who is being rewarded with a far more elevated posting to Brussels than when she returned from there in 2003.
The Rapid-Reaction Bottleneck
The ability of an Embassy spokesperson to respond rapidly to a spurious media charge too often depends on how fast the information needed to respond is made available from the State Department’s own public affairs people. This was where the problem of rapid response most often fell apart: Foggy Bottom is, well Foggy Bottom and agreed upon and relevant press guidance to counteract a fast breaking story too often dribbled out like cold molasses. Likely still does and Ms. Zeleny cosily ensconced in an office in Brussels won’t change it.
But there’s another piece to the media response story – and that is having enough qualified public diplomacy staff posted in our missions abroad capable of developing strong personal relationships with the local media representatives so that is possible to talk to the appropriate people when the record needs correction. This means career officers and staff in US Embassies and Consulates who speak and read the local languages and spend the time getting to know the media representatives in the country to which they are assigned - one-on-one over a lengthy period of time. These personal connections cannot and will not be made between a small (or even large) staff located in a remote office in a remote Embassy in a remote country regardless of the quality of the personnel and the rapidity of new technology.
Yes, Brussels is a major European media hub, but most reporters based there cover the EU and NATO as opposed to their media organizations' journalists who report and edit foreign affairs stories in the US, Tokyo, Beijing. Delhi, Jerusalem, Cairo, Paris, Moscow, London and elsewhere - as well as on their own home turf. And it's this crucial home turf that the latest Hughes initiative ignores.
The bottom lines
So in my view, AFSA’s right to cry foul about a sweet-heart, high level assignment for a nonentity administration favorite for any number of reasons including those listed in its president's letter of objection to Condi Rice.
Perhaps as importantly, however, someone should also ask whether the new office Ms. Zeleny is slated to head should be established in the first place.