I’m told that Mark Twain once said that the trouble with history was that it repeats. It is surprising how much the events surrounding our public diplomacy and overall political communications mirror the trauma of the same in the 1940s and 1950s. Sixty years ago, the House and Senate decried the poor quality of our propaganda and outreach, some of which, while good intentioned, backfired. Today, among other problems, Jim Glassman’s confirmation as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy is being held up for the same reason.
Frank Gaffney, Jr., writing in The Washington Times, lets the cat out of the bag on why Jim Glassman has yet to be confirmed in the nearly sixty days since his confirmation hearing. What’s the hold up? The good Senator (R) from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, wants a promise of more VOA into Iran, among other things.
As it happens, Radio Farda and its official U.S. counterpart, the Voice of America’s Persian Service, have reportedly engaged in recent years in practices that have raised questions about whose side they were on. Whistle-blowers and independent monitors have repeatedly warned that these agencies broadcast into Iran programming that actually advances not the cause of freedom, but the agenda of the Iranian regime that President Bush has correctly decried. Improvements have been made at Radio Farda by Jeff Gedmin, the new and highly regarded head of RFE/RL, but concerns about program content persist.
Such concerns have outraged Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security subcommittee charged with overseeing U.S. international broadcasts. A champion of transparency in government, Mr. Coburn has for years sought to obtain transcripts of all Farsi-language broadcasts from those charged with managing the relevant radio services: the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Unfortunately, understandable frustration that successive commitments to provide such transparency have gone largely unfulfilled, due to the unfunded cost of transcribing many thousands of hours of programming, has had a most undesirable result. Mr. Coburn has put a hold on the nomination of James Glassman, the current BBG chairman, to become what amounts to America’s combatant commander in the War of Ideas.
Sen. Coburn’s concern has an eerie ring of familiarity if we return to the debates behind something originally called Public Law 402 (4mb PDF). Sixty years ago, Congress wielded the budget axe when it didn’t like what it was seeing and hearing. Today, it’s a lone Senator. Sixty years ago, Smith-Mundt was passed to fix our information systems in a divisive Congress. Today, we have empty reports and a lone Senator preventing the filling of a position that is quickly becoming more marginalized with each passing day out of necessity. Ok, so history doesn’t repeat itself completely, but we’re not done yet.
Senator Coburn knows that we need to fix our information program, but holding Glassman’s nomination hostage isn’t the solution. The Senator wants more promises that things will change, but he’s looking for a tactical change when a strategic restructuring is required. Mr Gaffney is right that we’re disarmed in the war of ideas, but putting Glassman in office won’t be the missing link Gaffney suggests ("America’s combatant commander in the War of Ideas"). There is much more required here that Senator Coburn, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can do, steps that his predecessors sixty years ago took that have since been perverted and distorted to become not the tool of engagement but a major hindrance. Move from the tactical to the strategic Senator Coburn and you’ll find you’ll have broad support.
It goes without saying there’s more to come on this.
- Talking about the Principles of Smith-Mundt
- Understanding the Purpose Public Diplomacy
- Not Afraid to Talk: our adversaries aren’t, why are we?
- Synchronizing Information: The Importance of New Media in Conflict
- What the SecDef Didn’t Call For, But Should Have
- In-sourcing the Tools of National Power for Success and Security
- Targeting Public Opinion is not new
- Measuring "Public Diplomacy"?
- Elvis and the Psychological Struggle