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Annual $1 Billion International Image Campaign Isn't Enough To Buy U.S. Love

The Bush administration spends $1 billion a year trying to polish the United States' image around the world, yet polls show anti-Americanism rising to record levels, especially in Muslim and Arab nations where the government is concentrating its efforts. Now, a new report from Congress' General Accounting Office explains why the federal government's efforts at "public diplomacy" have been such a failure. Most damning, the report said the government isn't even trying to scientifically measure whether its public relations efforts are having any effect on foreign hearts and minds. Instead, it gauges success through anecdotes or even by how many speeches a local ambassador gives.
Posted 9/14/2003 5:19 PM

$1 billion international image campaign isn't enough to buy U.S. love

By Carl Weiser, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON The Bush administration spends $1 billion a year trying to polish the United States' image around the world, yet polls show anti-Americanism rising to record levels, especially in Muslim and Arab nations where the government is concentrating its efforts.

Now, a new report from Congress' General Accounting Office explains why the federal government's efforts at "public diplomacy" have been such a failure.

The report, released Sept. 4, concluded that the State Department's efforts have been scattershot and uncoordinated, foreign service officers charged with promoting the nation's image too often get stuck filling out paperwork, and one in five foreign service officers who are supposed to be helping America's image aren't fluent enough in the language of the country in which they're stationed.

Most damning, the report said the government isn't even trying to scientifically measure whether its public relations efforts are having any effect on foreign hearts and minds. Instead, it gauges success through anecdotes or even by how many speeches a local ambassador gives.

Public diplomacy spending has risen 9% in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks and more than 50% in the Middle East and South Asia. But a comprehensive poll in foreign countries this spring showed that in Muslim nations from Morocco to Indonesia the United States has never been more loathed. In many places Osama bin Laden gets more favorable ratings than President Bush.

"Americans are brilliant at communication. Why in the world we are all thumbs in this particular area just strikes me as one of the anomalies of history. But it's an important one to solve pretty fast," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It's so important because the Bush administration believes public relations is a key part of the war on terror.

Public diplomacy, the government's effort to sway regular folks as opposed to government elites, became a top priority after the terrorist attacks. The Bush administration pledged to dispel mistaken impressions of America, challenge anti-American views, and tout the United States' good deeds around the world.

But report after report has criticized the government's public diplomacy efforts.

Charlotte Beers, the Bush administration's first undersecretary for public diplomacy, resigned earlier this year for health reasons and has not been replaced. The State Department itself said it largely concurred with the GAO's report.

Congress was so dismayed at public diplomacy results that it created a special commission to recommend how to reach the Arab and Muslim world better. That commission, headed by the State Department's former Middle East expert, Edward Djerejian, is supposed to report its findings Oct. 1.

One of the report's top criticisms: Unlike private companies, the federal government spends little on polling or focus groups abroad. Marketing and public relations experts the GAO interviewed said the $3.5 million the State Department spends on overseas opinion research is about a tenth of what it needs to spend.

"The people in the marketing department at Colgate, they're doing lots of research," said Charles "Tre" Evers III, president of an Orlando communications firm and since May a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy.

Private and business groups aren't waiting for the government to solve its public diplomacy problems. A group of Kuwaiti and American citizens last week launched the American-Kuwait Alliance.

"Homeland security is too important to leave to the government alone," said Kenneth Minihan, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who helped organize the group.

Yousef H. Al-Ebraheem, a Kuwait University professor helping organize the alliance, said he believed perceptions of the United States among Arabs would improve if the United States makes good on its word to turn Iraq into a democracy.

"They want to see some results," he said. At the very least, they'd like to see the United States set some dates for elections or transition.

Earlier this summer, Keith Reinhard, chairman of advertising giant DDB Worldwide, organized business leaders their names have not been released to launch their own public diplomacy campaign.

Without government's bureaucracy, stifling mandates or money problems, business has more freedom to influence public opinion abroad.

"Anti-Americanism is indeed a business problem," Reinhard said. "And one that U.S. business is uniquely positioned to solve."

The United States has had some successes. A government-financed station broadcasting in the Middle East, called Radio Sawa, has proved hugely popular among Arab youth. Some question whether its news snippets are helping in the public relations battle its songs are what draw listeners but the government is sufficiently encouraged that it plans an Arabic-language satellite TV station later this year.

The $1 billion taxpayers spend is about evenly split between State Department efforts like exchange programs and talking to reporters, and broadcasting efforts, like Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and Sawa.

Barbara Barrett, a Phoenix lawyer who chairs the public diplomacy advisory commission for Public Diplomacy, said the government is still "retooling" its efforts after being geared toward fighting communism. Following the Soviet Union's collapse, public diplomacy all but disappeared from government priorities.

Evers, as well as the GAO, noted figuring out the exact impact of any public relations campaign can be hard. Some U.S. policies, no matter how well explained, will never be popular.

"The end result won't be perfect affection for America," Bennett said. "We will, however, keep working to have an honest and fair perception of America encouraged around the world."

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