The Cable

Public diplomacy agonistes: Fear over the direction of “R”

Despite the fact that Barack Obama gave his first interview as president to Al Arabiya television and has appointed a top foreign policy advisor from his campaign as the NSC director of strategic communications, some U.S. public diplomacy experts fear the new administration will forget the hard-earned lessons of the recent past, treating the State ...

Despite the fact that Barack Obama gave his first interview as president to Al Arabiya television and has appointed a top foreign policy advisor from his campaign as the NSC director of strategic communications, some U.S. public diplomacy experts fear the new administration will forget the hard-earned lessons of the recent past, treating the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy job as a Madison Avenue-type advertising position, rather than a national security post.

“This is a national security job,” said James Glassman, who stepped down last month after serving less than a year as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, or “R” as it’s known in government circles. “The vast majority of [U.S. public diplomacy funds] continues to be spent on education and cultural programs. But I changed the emphasis to national security, much to the pleasure of the DoD and frankly other parts of the interagency.”

Glassman’s worry is that the job will revert to advertising-style burnishing of the image of the United States, rather than being a non-military way for the U.S. to combat violent extremism.

The Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman and Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch have both noted that former Discovery Communications President and CEO Judith McHale is likely to be named to be Glassman’s successor. The State Department said it would have no comment and hasn’t yet announced a nominee.

McHale is a “smart lady who has been involved in this international television network; [there’s] no question that she is a talented person,” said Lynch, a George Washington University professor of Middle Eastern studies and expert on public diplomacy in the Arab world.

“On the other hand, she has no background in the [public diplomacy] field,” Lynch continued. “Glassman did a tremendous amount of work and effort over the last couple years to bring together strategic communications and public diplomacy and have this integrated interagency concept of communications. And basically the fear is that” his successor would not be inclined to do it.

Unlike a string of predecessors who treated the job as about improving America’s image abroad  and who were uncomfortable with covert elements of U.S. strategic communications, some public diplomacy experts noted, Glassman focused on integrating the overt and covert elements of U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communications across agency lines.

Before Glassman’s arrival, DoD-sponsored covert information operations had opened up a can of worms.

At the height of the Iraq insurgency, for instance, a series of America media reports emerged about controversial Pentagon-sponsored info ops. Among them were reports that a small Defense Department contractor called the Lincoln Group had paid to place pro-U.S. government propaganda portrayed as Iraqi media reports in the Iraqi press. Other reports noted that defense contractor SAIC had been “involved in a Pentagon program designed to feed disinformation to the foreign press,” investigative reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele reported in Vanity Fair. “The program was overseen by a Pentagon entity with the Orwellian name of Office of Strategic Influence, and its aims proved sufficiently odious that someone inside the Pentagon leaked its existence to The New York Times. An unrepentant Donald Rumsfeld stated that he would shut down the Office of Strategic Influence—but in name only.”

Such controversial and clumsy “strategic operations” have been sidelined and gotten under control, according to Glassman, who said his participation at State helped play a moderating influence on the agencies pursuing clandestine information operations. “Those are the reasons that this should be an interagency effort, where each part knows what the other is doing,” he said. “In strategic communications, everyone needs to be on the same page and trying to achieve the same ends. They are achieved through both open and clandestine means.”

Are the public diplomacy agonistes worked up without evidence? After all, the job of coordinating between the different agencies involved in the public diplomacy/strategic communications programs officially falls to the National Security Council (in the Bush NSC, Mark Pfeifle, advisor for strategic communications & global outreach; in the Obama NSC, Denis McDonough, the director of strategic communications and deputy assistant to the president on foreign policy). Glassman said that while the NSC staff coordinate, they haven’t run operations out of the White House since the Iran-Contra scandal.

An Obama NSC official concurred, “I believe that the NSC is not operational but that it should coordinate the interagency.”

McDonough will be “coordinating strategic communications from the NSC,” said a non-governmental public diplomacy expert, on condition of anonymity. It makes the [new R] appointment easier to take since the job will matter a lot less.”

And Glassman is bequeathing his successor an interagency group, the Global Strategic Engagement Center (GSEC), that he inherited from his predecessor Karen Hughes and repurposed to serve the interagency coordinating role. The group, Glassman explained, includes three people each from State, DoD, and the intelligence community, and is run by a State Department Foreign Service officer, who is staying on.

Glassman noted that there was nothing particularly obvious in his background to demonstrate the national security orientation he would bring to the job. And while the DoD and intelligence community were slow to warm up, he said, they eventually came to welcome his leadership.

“It’s very hard to get DOD and State and the intel community together,” Glassman said. “At least for this effort strategic communications we were able to do it partly because the other two groups were looking for leadership. Even then it became difficult to convince them to become part of the GSEC. One of the attractions to them is being at main State and the prestige of the location,” saying he tried to fight off a possible move of GSEC from the main State building before he stepped down.

UPDATE: Ackerman has more on this issue in a Tuesday article. Lynch has more thoughts on this too.

UPDATE II: A friend of The Cable who used to work in the public diplomacy realm writes to point out, "A couple of things folks aren’t reporting about the possible appointment of Judith McHale that you might want to look into. It’s my understanding that her father was a USIA officer.  She was the head of Discovery International not Discovery Channel (a friend of mine use to work there and pointed out the difference).  In other words, she spent a good deal of her childhood overseas with her family and watched firsthand how Public Diplomacy could and probably in some cases did not work.  She went on to run a large international corporation.  Sounds exactly like the person we would want to take on the PD challenge.  She is not a Madison Ave. PR person … nor an Uber Spokesperson … but someone who has had to practice working in foreign environments in order to run a successful company."

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