Marc Lynch

Still waiting on public diplomacy

Two ace foreign policy journalists, Spencer Ackerman and Laura Rozen, check in this morning on the direction of public diplomacy in the Obama administration. Both note that the position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy remains vacant despite the weeks-old rumors that Judith McHale had been selected. Both note that the former Under-Secretary Jim ...

Two ace foreign policy journalists, Spencer Ackerman and Laura Rozen, check in this morning on the direction of public diplomacy in the Obama administration. Both note that the position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy remains vacant despite the weeks-old rumors that Judith McHale had been selected. Both note that the former Under-Secretary Jim Glassman is worrried that his successor will not continue his "national security" approach.  And both note reports that Denis McDonough has been appointed to the position of director of strategic communications at the NSC.  Since I'm quoted in both pieces, I thought I would at least make a few quick points. 

First, McHale. In Ackerman's piece I have some kind words for Judith McHale. Have I changed my mind since my earlier criticism of her rumored selection for the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy position?  No.  My objection was never personal, and the... considerable... amount of testimony I've received from her friends only reinforces my previous assumptions that anyone who achieved what she has achieved in her life must be smart, strong, and tough. But, as I told both Rozen and Ackerman, I still worry about the fact that she has no background in public diplomacy or strategic communications.  That may leave her poorly placed to deal with the current delicate balance between the Pentagon and State Department. At least they should fill the position at some point.

Second,  McDonough.  I've been as pleased by the rumors that Denis McDonough will take on the strategic communications portfolio at the NSC as I was disturbed by the McHale selection. McDonough isn't just close the President, he really understands the value and logic of global engagement -- not just public diplomacy or strategic communcations, as traditionally defined. (I'll have much more on what I mean by this soon.) As I told Rozen, I've been one of the people arguing for months now in favor of locating the coordinator of the inter-agency process on strategic communications in the NSC rather than the State Department. It will always be difficult for a State Department official -- even an Under-Secretary -- to effectively balance the Pentagon, given the extreme imbalance of resources. Glassman was effective in large part by adopting the Pentagon's perspective. 

Two ace foreign policy journalists, Spencer Ackerman and Laura Rozen, check in this morning on the direction of public diplomacy in the Obama administration. Both note that the position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy remains vacant despite the weeks-old rumors that Judith McHale had been selected. Both note that the former Under-Secretary Jim Glassman is worrried that his successor will not continue his "national security" approach.  And both note reports that Denis McDonough has been appointed to the position of director of strategic communications at the NSC.  Since I’m quoted in both pieces, I thought I would at least make a few quick points. 

First, McHale. In Ackerman’s piece I have some kind words for Judith McHale. Have I changed my mind since my earlier criticism of her rumored selection for the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy position?  No.  My objection was never personal, and the… considerable… amount of testimony I’ve received from her friends only reinforces my previous assumptions that anyone who achieved what she has achieved in her life must be smart, strong, and tough. But, as I told both Rozen and Ackerman, I still worry about the fact that she has no background in public diplomacy or strategic communications.  That may leave her poorly placed to deal with the current delicate balance between the Pentagon and State Department. At least they should fill the position at some point.

Second,  McDonough.  I’ve been as pleased by the rumors that Denis McDonough will take on the strategic communications portfolio at the NSC as I was disturbed by the McHale selection. McDonough isn’t just close the President, he really understands the value and logic of global engagement — not just public diplomacy or strategic communcations, as traditionally defined. (I’ll have much more on what I mean by this soon.) As I told Rozen, I’ve been one of the people arguing for months now in favor of locating the coordinator of the inter-agency process on strategic communications in the NSC rather than the State Department. It will always be difficult for a State Department official — even an Under-Secretary — to effectively balance the Pentagon, given the extreme imbalance of resources. Glassman was effective in large part by adopting the Pentagon’s perspective. 

If it turns out that McDonough — someone close the President and who really understands the issue — takes on this portfolio at the NSC then I’ll be a lot less concerned about who gets the Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy position. This would meet many of the most pressing needs: giving public diplomacy and strategic communications a seat at the center of the table during the formation of policy, effectively balancing the perspectives of State and Defense, and coordinating the vast and diverse communications efforts of the government.

I’m still unclear on how this will work in practice, though –how central this portfolio will be to the very busy McDonough, how actively he will coordinate the inter-agency process, how it will be integrated into the policy process.  A similar position has existed before. The real question is what the person does with the position and how he or she makes public diplomacy and strategic communications fit into the policy process.  But these are good questions to be debating. Coincidentally, I’ve got my own longer piece on this in the works which addresses a number of these questions…. I’ll let you know when it comes out and discuss it then. 

UPDATE:  William Rugh and Lawrence Pintak weigh in with a piece in the Daily Star on the "Murrow Option"

Public diplomacy is much more complicated than selling Uncle Ben’s Rice to American consumers. It requires a sophisticated knowledge of foreign audiences and an ability to use various tools to reach them in a highly competitive international media environment. The United States needs to have someone heading its public diplomacy effort who can explain not only its policies but also its society and culture to others around the world with honesty and integrity. Obama understands that Americans must listen as well as talk and engage others in a candid dialogue that is based on respect for others’ opinions, so his public diplomacy chief should follow Murrow’s advice that to be persuasive the US must listen and always tell the truth.

Where can we find such a person? Various names come to mind: Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, or Bill Moyers who, like Murrow, is a stellar journalist whose career includes service in the halls of policy. From the print world, Washington Post columnist and former International Herald Tribune editor David Ignatius leaps out. These journalists and a handful of others whom Americans have trusted to explain the world to them would bring a new dimension to America’s outreach to the world.

 What do you think, David?  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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