Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sometimes a Debriefing, Sometimes Enhanced Interrogation

The Hertitage Foundation held a forum on U.S. public diplomacy yesterday to mark the tenth anniversary of the dissolution of the United States Information Agency (USIA). You can watch the video here: The Abolition of USIA and Its Effects on U.S. Public Diplomacy.

It was considerably more entertaining than the average wonkfest. Here are a few quotes, courtesy of today's story in the Washington Times:

Mr. Schadler, a former USIA officer now with the American Foreign Policy Council, called the closure of the agency dedicated to "telling America's story" for 46 years an "inexplicable self-inflicted wound" that damaged U.S. public diplomacy.

The decision, made in 1999 at the end of the Cold War, was supported by Congress, the White House and the State Department, which would absorb much of the USIA structure.

Mr. Schadler denounced the "bipartisan insanity that destroyed the USIA." Since the transfer to a newly created undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, the function of explaining the United States to the rest of the world has resulted in "an incoherent shambles," he said.

Mr. Schadler argued that public diplomacy "has been missing for a decade" from U.S. foreign policy and that al Qaeda terrorists make better use of the Internet than American diplomats. He added that the Defense Department and the CIA are doing better jobs of public diplomacy than the State Department.

Mr. Schadler noted that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called for a "massive influx of resources" for public diplomacy when he served in the same position in the George W. Bush administration.

"Defense Department officials do public diplomacy because their buddies are being killed and maimed because we have such poor public diplomacy [from the State Department]," he said.

"The CIA conducts public diplomacy," he added. "Sometimes it is called a debriefing. Sometimes enhanced interrogation."

On the panel along with the outspoken Mr. Schadler were Joseph Duffey, the last director of USIA, and Daniel Sreebny, acting director of the Global Strategic Engagement Center at the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Both of those gentleman were just as blunt as Schadler in their criticism of the decision to disband USIA, even Sreebny, who is still on the government payroll.

Mr. Sreebny, who has served 30 years in public diplomacy, called the dismantling of the agency a "mistake and terrible disservice" to the American public.

When he learned that the USIA would be moved to the State Department, he recalled, "I was angry at the political leadership, at State, at the White House, at Congress."

However, he added, re-establishing the USIA as an independent government agency also would be a disservice today because of the cost of relaunching such a broad public diplomacy effort.

"If you are not going to do it right, why do it at all," Mr. Sreebny said.

Mr. Duffey, USIA director from 1993 to 1999, said cost was one of the main factors for transferring the agency to the State Department. The other was the end of the Cold War and the feeling that the USIA was unnecessary.

"It was a time of euphoria and a misreading of history," he said.

This is coming from a right-leaning public policy research institute. I think that makes it unanimous. No one now thinks it was a good idea to disband USIA in 1999.

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