Losing the battle for hearts and minds

Government struggles to keep focus on "public diplomacy" and "strategic influence" post 9/11

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While pouring billions of dollars into military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration underplayed perhaps the most important battle against Islamic extremists: the struggle to win over hearts and minds. Building pro-Western political and cultural organizations and promoting U.S. values of openness, democracy, and human rights were key to winning the Cold War, but experts broadly agree that the “war of ideas” suffered under the Bush Administration. “If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us,” the 9/11 Commission admonished.

The United States once had an entire agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), assigned to “public diplomacy” — promoting America’s values and image in the world — but after the Cold War, the USIA was disbanded and its staff shoehorned into the State Department, where the agency’s exchange programs and outreach efforts diminished. Other agencies failed to take up these challenges: by 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, had only a handful of staff in its once huge “strategic influence” section. After September 11, the budget for nonmilitary public diplomacy and public affairs began growing again, topping $1.5 billion by 2006. Still, by one estimate, the U.S. would need to spend $7 billion on public diplomacy in the Muslim world to match the level of funding dedicated to winning over German and Japanese citizens after World War II. In other parts of the world, too, much of the goodwill the United States enjoyed after 9/11 turned to animosity. In 2002, just months after the 9/11 attacks, support for American anti-terrorism policies began eroding, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project. After the start of the Iraq war, public opinion turned against America even among U.S. allies like France and Germany. In a separate poll conducted in 2006, people in countries as disparate as South Korea and Canada chose the United States as the greatest threat to global stability, beating out such countries as Iran, Syria, China, and North Korea. Threats to American private property and personnel overseas “have become constant in some regions, especially the Middle East,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2007.

Follow-up:
In 2004, Congress passed a law that increased public diplomacy activities in the Muslim World. By 2006, funding for educational and cultural exchange programs in the Middle East had increased by 25 percent, according to the GAO, but in 2007, 22 percent of public diplomacy positions at State were still vacant, and in the Muslim world, some 30 percent of U.S. foreign service officers lacked the requisite language skills. America’s image in the world remains battered; In a 2008 poll in five western European countries, the United States ranked only below China as the “greatest threat to global security.” Although the State Department press office did not respond to a request for comment, in October 2008 the undersecretary for public diplomacy, James K. Glassman, said, “When George W. Bush became president, there was no war of ideas strategy to speak of and no infrastructure. As this administration prepares to leave office, a strategy, a platform, and a new way of doing business are in place, ready for the next administration.”

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