Spanish Election Shows Bush Fails at Public Diplomacy

Posted March 24, 2004 at 3:22pm

If al Qaeda’s March 11 attacks in Madrid were Spain’s 9/11 wake-up call on terrorism, the Spanish election defeat that followed should be America’s wake-up on public diplomacy.

The ouster of an allied government, plus a new Pew poll on global attitudes toward the United States, should force the Bush administration to face the fact that it’s doing a terrible job of explaining itself to the rest of the world. [IMGCAP(1)]

The war on terrorism could suffer as a result, and fixing the problem should be urgent business for the administration.

Various independent commissions and Members of Congress, led by Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), have pointed out what needs to be done — chiefly, reorganize and upgrade the nation’s message-shaping operations.

Wolf says the president should appoint a Cabinet-level counselor for public diplomacy. Hyde agrees, and he also wants to give greater power to the current highest-level official responsible for selling American policy, the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.

That post is now occupied by Margaret Tutwiler, a talented former White House and State Department official and U.S. ambassador to Morocco, who has told Members of Congress that she didn’t want the job and that she plans to leave at the end of the year.

While on the job, she has been pushing efforts to reach the Arab “street” through sports programs, shipping books and taped or compact disc translations to Muslim countries and sponsoring televised discussions between American and foreign young people.

All of that’s good. And so is the creation of Radio Sawa, a popular music and news station that has become the most listened-to foreign outlet in Arab countries, and Al Hurra, a satellite news channel broadcasting to Arabs.

Al Hurra has the vital mission of transmitting balanced news against the sensationalist anti-American diatribes of Arab channels such as Al Jazeera, which last summer broadcast a two-hour interview with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who charged that Israel had plotted the Sept. 11 attacks.

But all of this is late catch-up, as the Pew poll demonstrated. It showed that public favorability ratings toward the United States have fallen since the end of the Iraq War in Britain, France and Germany, and that favorable attitudes toward Osama bin Laden remain shockingly high in the Muslim world.

To fight back, Bush needs to give communicating with the world almost the same priority as fighting terrorism. The two are connected.

Right now, impressions spread by America-haters in the foreign media and Islamic groups threaten to dominate the minds of foreign populations, forcing their governments to back away from cooperation with the United States.

History shows that images of America can be changed for the better. Ronald Reagan, a creature of Hollywood, did it, with help from his irrepressible foreign information chief, Charles Wick, another Hollywood veteran.

When Reagan became president in 1981 determined to counter the Soviet Union and upgrade U.S. defenses, he was portrayed by the European media much as President Bush is today — as a “cowboy,” an irresponsible hawk sure to make the world more dangerous.

Much as Bush today faces militant international opposition to his Iraq war policy and alleged “unilateralism,” Reagan faced massive protests against his plans to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20s.

But in a crucial test of strength that followed effective U.S. public diplomacy, in 1984 the voters of West Germany re-elected the conservative government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which proceeded to approve Pershing deployment, forcing the Soviets into negotiations.

In one respect, Bush’s job is harder than Reagan’s was. As Carnegie Endowment scholar Robert Kagan demonstrates in his must-read book, “Of Paradise and Power,” Europe since the Cold War culturally and politically has moved far from the United States, especially in its preference for comfort and conflict-avoidance instead of confronting enemies with force.

After the March 11 al Qaeda terror attack in Madrid and the election of a Socialist government hostile to Bush, Kagan wrote in The Washington Post that U.S.-European relations had come to “the edge of the abyss.”

“The Bush administration,” he wrote, “needs to recognize it has a crisis on its hands and start making up for lost time in mending transatlantic ties and not just with chosen favorites.”

Kagan’s main proposal went beyond imaging-making. He called for dropping the administration’s penchant for favoring so-called “New Europe” allies and disparaging “Old Europe” skeptics — especially because the populations of allies such as Spain harbored distinctly hostile attitudes toward the United States.

Bush ought to insist that Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration’s most popular figure abroad, travel more frequently — not only to confer with leaders, but also to speak to their populations.

Hyde favors a new plan, pushed by Wick and former U.S. Information Agency officials, to give Tutwiler’s successor direct line authority over public information officers in embassies overseas. At the moment, they report to low-level public diplomacy officers in regional bureaus.

Bush should also replace ambassadors who got their jobs in return for political fundraising with people who can get on foreign television and argue America’s case.

And, he should make an effort — without yielding on the policy front — to reconnect with estranged former allies. He may not convince the French to trust him, but the effort might persuade others that he’s trying.