Overhauling US Public Diplomacy Is like Beating a Dead Horse

05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"On March 6, the evening news on (Congress-funded Arabic TV) Alhurra labeled me as a Zionist agent," wrote Iraqi lawmaker Mithal Alusi, in an email to his close friends.

Alusi, running for reelection, has been the only Iraqi official to visit Israel, publicly, and endorse a peace treaty, arguing that the two countries share no borders, that Iraq does not host any Palestinian refugees, and that the Palestinian Authority had signed peace accords with Israel.

For his pro-peace stance, Alusi often faces slander. But coming from Alhurra, which was designed as a tool of America's public diplomacy, raises an eyebrow.

Over the past decade, America's public diplomacy, has clearly been counterproductive, as illustrated by the Alusi episode.

On public diplomacy, the administration and Congress have teetered between patting themselves on the back for imagined success, and scratching their heads trying to sketch an effective plan.

For 2010, Washington allocated $520 million "for public diplomacy to engage foreign audiences and win support for US foreign policy goals," according to the State Department. And while the nation tightened its belt for 2011, Congress increased "public diplomacy" budget to $568 million.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing last week to help "incorporate past successes into its future planning," according to the opening statement by Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), who had invited Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale, and three of her predecessors Evelyn Lieberman, Karen Hughes and James Glassman, to testify.
The guests talked about their pet projects. For Hughes, it was teaching English around the world. For Glassman, it was numbers of Congress-funded Arabic TV Alhurra, and its sister Radio Sawa, that together reach weekly to 35 million Arabs throughout the Middle East.
McHale said State Department has created more public diplomacy positions, and intends to build "American Cultural Centers" around the world.

"Do you recommend that our officers go on hostile channels like (Qatari satellite channel) Al-Jazeera?" Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked. Hughes said: "Certainly, if a US government official gets 10 minutes on the air, it would mean minutes taken away from anti-American guests."

To the same question, McHale agreed, saying that Al-Jazeera had a weekly reach of 250 million viewers, a number which both Hughes and Glassman did not dare bring up in their testimonies, because it would have dwarfed the presumed success of America's Arabic TV and radio.
"Do we have enough US officers fluent in conversational Arabic to go on Al-Jazeera?" Wicker added. Hughes and later McHale stuttered, arguing that State Department has fluent Arabic speakers, but that their number was not enough.

However, Arabs who watch Al-Jazeera know that Arabic-speaking US officials are rare. Occasionally, Al-Jazeera hosts American diplomats, who are often boringly inarticulate and recite talking points, unlike Arab autocrats and their bankrolled pundits, who know how to instigate, and win, the average Arab Joe.

Many argue that Arab autocrats divert popular anger, resulting from oppression and inadequate governance, in the direction of the United States, the Jews, Israel, Free Masons, or all of them combined.

The son of the world's longest sitting dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who has been ruling Libya since 1969, was charged of inflicting physical injuries on his staff, while in Switzerland. The Swiss promptly imprisoned the son, Hanibal, and later released him on bail. The father called for Jihad against Switzerland, presumably for its ban on building Muslim minarets, much to the cheer of angry Libyans.

When asked, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley belittled the call to Jihad. Gadhafi publically demanded a US apology for Crowley's statement. The Libyan dictator, who had spent colossal amounts of lobbying money to reconnect with Washington, fell short of threatening to sever diplomatic ties with America.

Gadhafi's behavior illustrates duplicity in the behavior of autocrats. In the media, they raise hell on America. In private, they beg for Washington's friendship. This applies to Venezuelan Hugo Chaves, who sells America 16 percent of its oil needs, but swears animosity in public. Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad has endorsed a similar double-faced policy.

Meanwhile, a toothless American public diplomacy has rendered America defenseless in face of autocrat-instigated world popular anger against it.

Alhurra was set up to counter Al-Jazeera's anti-US propaganda. Alhurra failed because of its incompetent leadership and desperate politicians, like Hughes and Glassman, describing the channel's failure a success.

Overhauling Alhurra is imperative to countering deceptive anti-American propaganda.
In the case of Gadhafi, Alhurra should have produced and aired documentaries about the Libyan leader's tyranny, including his terrible record on human rights and corruption of his sons, who often hold extravagant parties in Europe.

Alhurra producers should have taken off to Switzerland to capture, on film, how could a nation protecting human rights, against Gadhafi's son's practices, was later forced to succumb to Libyan blackmail.

Public diplomacy success will never come through boring State Department talking points, or with misinformed Under Secretaries of State for Public diplomacy beating a dead horse on the Hill, in front of less informed and partisan lawmakers.