U.S. needs PR czar, Congress being told

Report seeks to explain, reverse decline in nation's public image overseas

October 01, 2003|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Diplomatic efforts to improve the image of the United States abroad are "absurdly and dangerously underfunded," and the Cabinet-level position of image czar should be created inside the White House to oversee America's public diplomacy effort, according to a report to be delivered to Congress today.

"A process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety," the report says.

"In this time of peril, public diplomacy is absurdly and dangerously underfunded, and simply restoring it to its Cold War status is not enough."

The study was commissioned in June by Congress, which is worried by the steep decline in the way the United States is viewed abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. It was chaired by respected former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria.

Djerejian and members of his bipartisan task force, including a number of prominent Arab-Americans, traveled to several nations, including Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Senegal and Morocco, to explore how the effort to win goodwill toward the United States was faring.

Their report, "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," recommends that a high-level official who has the president's trust be put in charge of developing strategy for communications abroad, according to members of the commission.

Working with the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs overseas broadcasting, this "special counsel to the president" would also try to ensure that U.S. policies are sensitive to foreign public opinion.

The goal is "adding some serious muscle to public diplomacy, putting it in the White House, bringing more voices into the formulation of policy, and once that policy is set, making sure there is consistent communication," said one of the commission's members.

Djerejian, through a spokesman, declined to comment until the 80-page report is unveiled.

Congress directed the advisory group only to study the public diplomacy apparatus, not to make recommendations about whether to adjust any U.S. policies such as its support for Israel and for conservative regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, which are unpopular among many people in the Muslim world.

"We're not saying that we think spin and PR and propaganda is the answer to improving our relations in the Arab and Muslim world, but we also very firmly believe that our story ... has not been told very well, partly because we haven't listened to the other side," said the commission member.

However, in an interview conducted before his appointment to the commission, another member argued that retaining goodwill around the world might require changing policies.

"Interests are fixed, you don't change them," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. "But if policies are not serving your interests, you change them."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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