Margaret Tutwiler, in her first public appearance as the State Department official in charge of public diplomacy, acknowledged on Wednesday that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such an extent that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore it.
Tutwiler, the former State Department spokeswoman and later ambassador to Morocco, was recently selected to try to address rising hostility toward the US in much of the Muslim world.
In testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee, she agreed with the main findings of an independent panel that American outreach has suffered from budget cuts and neglect since the end of the cold war.
"Unfortunately, our country has a problem in far too many parts of the world," she said, "a problem we have regrettably gotten into over many years through both Democrat and Republican administrations, and a problem that does not lend itself to a quick fix or a single solution or a simple plan."
The findings were the result of an extensive bipartisan study led by Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria. The panel asserted that US prestige had dwindled, that much of America's charity was overlooked and that its overall approach lacked strategic direction.
"The bottom has indeed fallen out of support for the United States," Djerejian, speaking after Tutwiler, told the subcommittee in his first public presentation of the report.
The report, requested by the subcommittee's Republican chairman, Frank Wolf, was released last October. It identified systemic problems, including a lack of Arabic speakers in the State Department -- only five Americans are fluent, Djerejian said. It also noted the decline in the number of public diplomacy officers, from 2,500 in 1991 to 1,200 last year.
The report urged a greater role for America's private sector, especially its media companies, in developing creative new ways to reach out to Arab youths.
The report, and Republicans on the subcommittee, urged placing a public diplomacy coordinator in the White House, with access to the president and a team that would scrutinize foreign perceptions. But Tutwiler refused to embrace calls for the new position.
Tutwiler said she was determined to work within the existing budget of about US$600 million for worldwide public diplomacy, which includes a wide range of efforts, including exchange programs, partnerships between American embassies and local institutions, distributing textbooks and supplying textbooks to local schools.
Wolf called the administration's overall response to the report "lackluster" and "disappointing."
Representative Jim Kolbe cited polls showing that only 15 percent of Indonesians, 7 percent of Saudis and 15 percent of Turks have a favorable image of America -- despite their governments' friendly relations with Washington.
He urged Tutwiler to be bolder in pressing her case with top administration officials.
A former State Department spokeswoman and a close associate of former secretary of state James Baker, Tutwiler is seen as having powerful connections.
But Tutwiler replied: "My answer would be, based on experience of having worked in three White Houses, that that would be less than well received, in all candor."