A Pentagon advisory board has produced a searing indictment of the White House, Congress, and the State and Defense Departments for failing to fashion a communications strategy intended to burnish the tarnished image of the US around the world.
The US' ability to persuade other nations "is in crisis," says a task force report from the Defense Science Board, "and it must be transformed with a strength of purpose that matches our commitment to diplomacy, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security."
"Policies will not succeed unless they are communicated to global and domestic audiences in ways that are credible and allow them to make informed, independent judgments," the board says. "Messages should seek to reduce, not to increase, perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards."
Those messages are carried in public diplomacy, through American Cultural Centers abroad and exchange programs that bring foreigners to the US, and public affairs offices that address the foreign press. In addition, strategic communications include broadcasts by the Voice of America and information operations that can involve controversial psychological warfare.
Missing from these efforts are strong leadership, strategic direction, adequate coordination, sufficient resources and a culture of measurement and evaluation, the report says.
While the assessment did not name President George W. Bush or the secretaries of state and defense, the authors left no doubt about to whom their appraisal referred. The Bush Administration has long been criticized for not persuading allied, friendly, and neutral nations of its intent, especially in the war on terror and the incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.
The task force's analysis was directed largely at the inability of the Bush Administration to overcome negative attitudes toward the US held in Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan.
Islam's internal and external struggle over values, identity, and change is the dominant political arena in which strategic communication takes place, the report says.
This study, however, was not limited to the Islamic world.
"The contest of ideas is taking place not just in Arab and other Islamic countries but in the cities and villages of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere," says the task force of academics, researchers from think tanks, officials within the government, and private citizens.
The task force noted that the Defense Science Board, which advises the Pentagon not just on technical issues but has a wider charter, issued an earlier report shortly after the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, urging that US strategic communication with other nations be given high priority.
Since then, about 15 other assessments have come from private institutes such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the conservative Heritage Foundation, the liberal Brookings Institution and from several Congressional committees and investigative offices. Like the Pentagon board, they have advisory influence, not operational authority.
"So far," this most recent report says, these concerns have produced no real change. The White House has paid little attention. Congressional actions have been limited to informational hearings and funding for Middle East broadcasting initiatives.