Patricia H. Kushlis
“I will also launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war. We will open “America Houses’ in cities across the Islamic world. . . I will make clear that we are not at war with Islam.” – Senator Barack Obama, speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., August 1, 2007.
Obama’s Inaugural Address and his interview with Al-Arabiya the following week in which the new president made it abundantly clear that this country is not at war with Islam were designed to set the new administration’s tone with respect to the Muslim world. As such, they eloquently began the task of putting the Bush administration’s war with Islam to rest, a misspoken and misshapen policy that has hampered this country’s relations with the Muslim world since at least 2003.
The question is what next?
One week before Obama’s inauguration, the General Accountability Office cited the need for far better management of this nation’s public diplomacy efforts. The GAO said that public diplomacy is the fifth of 13 major issues that require the new president’s urgent attention.
On January 22, just two days after the inauguration, Al Kamen’s In-the-Loop column in the Washington Post reported an unsubstantiated leak that Hillary Clinton was about to appoint long time acolyte Judith McHale as her new public diplomacy czar. On January 26 – no new appointment yet made – the well-connected-to-the-State Department bloggers on Nukes and Spooks reported that the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy was being evicted from the dizzying proximity to power on the State Department’s 7th floor to make room for the new Deputy Secretary for Management and that whoever would be appointed as new Under Secretary would be installed across the building somewhere – possibly where the former USAID administrator once sat.
Seems to me that this says a lot about the significance of and thinking about public diplomacy in the Clinton State Department. At least, thus far.
I applaud Clinton’s decision to upgrade the position of head of management to the Deputy Secretary level. The State Department is legion for abysmal management. For only one brief moment under Colin Powell were things reversed. Wretched management returned with a vengeance when Condi Rice took the helm.
Nevertheless, I also think that what’s been leaked to the media thus far shows that:
1) public diplomacy will not be a central focus of the Clinton Secretary of State-ship – and as a consequence it is likely to continue to be treated as State’s “red haired step child” as long as it remains under the purview of the Department; And
2) more importantly, that what’s left of the current dismal state of public diplomacy affairs will not, repeat not, accomplish what the new president said he wants done either in terms of a coordinated public diplomacy effort across the administration or in its ability to establish America Houses across the Muslim world.
Let’s get this straight, as long as public diplomacy remains within the secretive and excessively hierarchical State Department (traditional diplomacy is by its very nature secretive) and its head is an Under Secretary who reports to the Secretary of State rather than the president, then this country’s public diplomacy efforts will continue to suffer from the same deficiencies as in the past: severe budget and staffing inadequacies, poor coordination and control problems, and no impact on the making and executing of US foreign policy. The appointment of a public relations specialist or a business person as the Under Secretary – if either happens - will just make matters worse. Public diplomacy is not, repeat not public relations. It is also not psychological operations (PSYOPS), information warfare or strategic communications.
I think, therefore, that it’s crucial to read and reread a piece of the piece of Obama’s Wilson Center speech that I quoted at the beginning of this post: “I will also launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war.”
Fine. This is what needs to occur.
But to do so, major structural and attitudinal changes need to happen – and that direction must come from the pinnacle of the administration because it’s becoming all too clear that they won’t come from the Hillary-led State Department. Bureaucracy is about expanding one's empire - not giving up a piece willingly.
Yet there is no way the State Department can coordinate public diplomacy across departments if, in fact, that is what Obama thinks should happen. This bureaucracy is far too weak, too bifurcated and besides, it has other fish-to-fry – such as negotiations and relations with the North Koreans, Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese to name a few - that are at the heart of its core diplomatic functions. State also needs to clean up major messes in Consular Affairs and Human Resources as well as staff and operate US Embassies and Consulates abroad.
Furthermore, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy doesn’t even have the power to coordinate public diplomacy activities between Washington and Embassies abroad or within the confines of Foggy Bottom let alone deal with far more contentious and headstrong independent agencies inside the Beltway.
Most importantly, however, the Pentagon requires major curtailment just in terms of its overblown media operation designed to win hearts and minds at home and abroad, an operation that exploded exponentially during the Bush administration. These costly and seemingly largely uncontrolled activities all too often mix unattributed and questionably factual messages designed for foreign audiences with those aimed at US reporters and the folks at home. This is not only illegal; it is dangerously misleading. Who knows where fiction ends and fact begins in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. And how anyone, therefore, can disentangle the Pentagon’s wondrous tales of success is beyond me particularly as the pool of experienced American investigative reporters shrinks by the minute.
According to a newly released must-read AP study on the topic (reported in Newsweek), the U.S. military spent $4.7 billion on information operations ($1.6 billion - recruitment and advertising, $547 million for public affairs, and $489 million for psychological operations) just this year – as much as it spent on body armor for the troops in Iraq between 2004 and 2006. Staffing across these areas currently costs about $2.1 billion – double the 2003 amount. It’s no wonder this is so costly: The Pentagon employs “27,000 people for these functions almost as many as the total 30,000 person work force in the State Department.”
AP doesn’t compare military spending on information operations with the limping public diplomacy effort at the State Department – but maybe it should have done that too.
Just last June, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy reported that 1,070 public diplomacy career track Foreign Service Officers were included in the over all total of 6,500 State Department Foreign Service Officers. According to the American Academy of Diplomacy in October 2008, the total FY 2008 budget for public diplomacy is $859 million. Public Diplomacy’s current staff of 1,332 Americans was 24% less than the “comparable 1986 total of 1,742.” State’s overall public diplomacy workforce totaled 3,034: this includes the Foreign Service Officers already mentioned plus Civil Servants and Locally Engaged Staff (formerly called Foreign Service Nationals). Since the military includes recruiters in its $4.7 billion information operations and staff budgets add in the 10 State Department recruiters for a total of 3,044. An aside: no one in the State Department seems to know how much its recruitment efforts cost – several million was the closest anyone could get.
Regardless, the discrepancy between the flea-sized State Department’s conduct of public diplomacy versus the elephantine information operations under the Pentagon is painfully apparent. So let’s get real: how can the State Department’s tiny public diplomacy staff and a chief at only the Under Secretary level possibly begin to deal with – let alone coordinate activities that involve - the mammoth-sized Pentagon?
This just doesn’t compute.