It happened that just as Pacesetter Rumsfeld began making his speeches about the need for some new form of pro-active communications reform in dealing with the war on terror, the White House was preparing to name presidential gal pal Karen Hughes to Amb. Rank as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. This was done with much fan fare and great expectation, particularly since 2005 was going to be the year that the Bush team could consolidate its election mandate on managing the war in Iraq. Gettting Hughes in harness was genuinely good news. Quillnews took note. And the assignment she was taking had been neglected and abused since the end of the Cold War. Hughes an aggressive go-getter who the president listened to would be pulling the levers of public outreach, engagement, diplomatic receptions, education grants, tours to build understanding and the host of other “soft arts” that comprise public diplomacy lately. (More below on what she did with the assignment!)
Government, like every other institution of society, has strived to adapt to the technology that drove the graphics revolution in the 20th century. The US government entered the graphics big leagues with World War Two, as radio and motion pictures became essential vehicles to convey information and to build and maintain morale. Public space and work place posters sending war messages are now icons of pop art. To properly manage these technologies and prevent abuse by the enemy first during the war and later in confronting Soviet aggression, the USG set up the Office of War Information, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and other such agencies which evolved into the USIA, VOA. The activities of these agencies were largely managed as part of the diplomatic services in the State Department and treated like the country’s de facto communications or public affairs outreach program, which handled scholarships, cultural exchanges, VIP tours, etc. Rarely were these activities of government used by the executive branch’s ruling coalition as part of the nation’s day-to-day program to implement strategic action.
Instead, the ruling coalition at the senior levels of government used their own political communication functions to build support for their own particular programs or for their own personal political fortunes. The game soon changed so that the all elected and appointed political figures strived to keep the government’s official communications activities (VOA, USIA, et al) separate from the interactions of the ruling coalition. This ensured that the government could not be used to manufacture propaganda for one domestic political program or candidate and ensured that the offshore communications activities of the USIA and VOA could remain separate from partisan politics. But it also had the effect of keeping the communications and public affairs outreach activities of government away from members of the ruling coalition, who over time never developed the management skills necessary to adequately support these functions of government. As a result, after the demise of the Soviet Union, whatever champions these functions of government had were unable to justify the continued independence of a government communications and public affairs function. The result was the a series of government reorganizations that effectively shut down the USIA, and gutted the VOA and distributed control over broadcasting and communications assets over a confusing and cross functional set of bureaucratic sinecures that no one actually controls. It is a complete mess.
Today something called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG, BBG2) the independent federal entity responsible for all US government and government-sponsored international broadcasting programming on Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Worldnet and Radio-TV Marti. Their budget now exceeds $500 million, with more for Middle East Radio Network (MERN), broadcasting as Radio Sawa, the Arabic word for "together", and Radio Afghanistan. This is all coordinated through the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy – somehow.
The USIA, VOA, Radio Free Europe and all the other legacy units for communicating US policy, identity and values grew out of the lessons of World War II, when the Office of War Information, and OSS and other embedded units within State and military services practiced the “communications arts and sciences” according to the fashions and habits of the time. The CIA of course would adopt the covert programs, while the VOA and USIA would serve more as the front office channels of communication and engagement programs. Over the period in the 50’s and early 60’s, these institutions grew with very little controversy. The FSOs who staffed these agencies were careerists, who only ocassionaly were led led by real stars, Edward R. Murrow under JFK and John Chancellor briefly under LBJ. During the Vietnam War everything changed; the VOA, USIA and other institutions of government communication capacity began an endless and inevitably downward slide as it no longer seemed fashionable for Americans to trust their government to tell the truth. USIA, VOA and the other legacy institutions began to sink into the State Department bureaucracy as other more assertive and more fashionable communicators – campaign consultants, press secretaries, TV anchor men, celebrity journalists employed in the private sector – became favored conveyors of public information – which usually benefited a particular political figure or policy agenda. Certainly government flaks within VOA or USIA had no standing in this new game of media gotcha!
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US capacity to communicate its programs and policies and values was gutted. Understaffed, budgets cut, mauled in bureaucratic infighting, eventually the dawdlers, do-gooders, puff artists and con men won the day. The USIA was officially ended October 1, 1999. Here is the legislation that changed everything. (L, L2, L3, L4, L5) Here is a fact sheet about the USIA, and an affectionate commemorative essay.
The net result of this reform hodge podge has been ego stroking, feather bedding, consultant driven flim flamery, budget puffery and slashing has been a public embarrassment in DC ever since. Then came Sept 11. It became clear that the US has gutted precisely the kinds of communications tools it would need in this new war of ideas. Initiatives in both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the White House were launched to develop immediate action plans and see what could be done. One effort by the Rep. Frank Wolfe, of the House Committee on Appropriations, led to the thoughtful study: (report here). But after a flurry of action in 2002 and 2003, it was clear that a White House centered effort would fail. (One can only assume that Sec of State Powell and Sec of Defense Rumsfeld didn’t appreciate all this “help” from junior political Bush operatives on the war’s “message of the day”!) After some chair reshuffling at the White House the effort was quietly abandoned in 2004. Congress authorized the GAO to do a full blown study about the issue. (Excellent report here)
Quillnews observation: Despite all the fan fare of Hughes appointment in the spring, she promptly went on leave for 9 months! (Like Bullwinkle & Rocky's pal, Capt. Wrongway Peachfuzz, Hughes, having been given the communications assignment of the age, went home; leaving behind the job she and Rice and Bush 43 all touted was so important!) Talk about delivering a message! Hard to believe. But in the middle of a war where “hearts and minds” are part of the target audience of the war itself, Hughes takes a leave for personal reasons. The bloom came off the rose with Quillnews after that. It is obvious the Bush 43 senior executives are of the type who view public diplomacy as so much hot air, puffery, unmanly perhaps, and certaintly not worthy of consideration at the executive decision making table. It is action that speak louder than words. Okay, fair enough. (QN) If that management strategy works. The problem for the rest of 2005 and early 2006 was the actions the people would see in Iraq (combined with the absence of “words” explaining and engaging issues at hand) weren’t telling the story in any way balanced or fair minded. So now what…? Stay tuned.