A high-level panel of foreign policy and social media experts recently questioned “the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the (ISIS) terrorist group’s propaganda,” a sad commentary on the current state of our government’s ineffectual efforts to counter an ISIS social media recruiting and propaganda campaign.
Those of us who used to be in that business call it public diplomacy, which is propaganda in the best sense of that word — putting our best foot forward in mass and social media. My alma mater, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was merged into the State Department in 1999, defined its noble mission as “telling America’s story to the world.” We public diplomats were proud of our little-known but significant contributions toward winning the Cold War.
Today, however, what’s left of our nation’s public diplomacy infrastructure is buried in the basement of the sprawling State Department, fondly known by some of us as the “Fudge Factory.” Today’s public diplomats are hidden from view and rarely heard from. In the USIA era public diplomacy had a seat at the policy table. President Kennedy’s highly respected USIA Director, legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, got it right when he said public diplomacy “needs to be in on the takeoffs, not just the crash landings.”
Many of us were heartened two years ago when President Obama named respected Time magazine Managing Editor Richard “Rick” Stengel as his Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. But Stengel, who was a high-profile magazine editor, has gone mute at the State Department and we don’t know how he’s going to tell America’s story to the world and/or counter ISIS propaganda videos.
“How do we tell America’s story with credibility?” Secretary of State John Kerry asked when Stengel was sworn-in as Undersecretary. Stengel responded “a country based on values has to tell its story,” adding “we have to debate that story.” Yes, but we don’t have to engage in an ongoing mea culpa — some might call it an “apology tour” — around the world. We need to proudly explain and defend our values in the international court of public opinion.
The experts panel report I mentioned at the outset of this column highlighted “the continued turmoil in the Obama administration’s effort to erode the online appeal of a terrorist group (ISIS) that has used a massive presence on social media to attract recruits, radicalize followers and incite attacks against the West.” Although the panel endorsed State Department initiatives to enlist Middle Eastern allies in the propaganda war, it concluded “the U.S. counter-messaging operation is in disarray.”
Stengel told the panel that State’s messaging operation “is trending upward” while acknowledging “constant adaptations by the Islamic State put pressure on the U.S. government to keep pace.” Frankly, his wishy-washy statement doesn’t convince me our government is doing everything possible to counter ISIS propaganda. Inexplicably, Stengel spoke in cautious State Department diplo-speak and made no mention of radical Islamic terrorism. His language was weak and unconvincing.
Violating Stengel’s vow to defend the free flow of public information, State declined to release the review group’s full report, which coincided with the departure of Rashad Hussain, who had directed the Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). His predecessor, Amb. Alberto Fernandez, a former USIA officer, had pushed CSCC to take a more combative line in the propaganda wars while being criticized for “tweeting at terrorists.” Well, whatever it takes.
We need to establish a strong, effective, semiautonomous public diplomacy operation outside the State Department before it’s too late. This is a critical national security issue that needs immediate attention.
Guy W. Farmer spent 28 years with the U.S. Information Agency.