The Bush administration has been visibly frustrated at the inability of the United States to get its message through to the Arab world in a positive light. One manifestation of this is the occasionally expressed belief that everything would be all right if the Arab cable news channel, al-Jazeera, could be bought, bullied or browbeaten into seeing things our way.
“Yet, overall,” writes the influential British news weekly The Economist, “America’s declining image among Arabs has owed less to al-Jazeera than to unpopular American policies, and to Washington’s ineptitude in selling them . . . . Amazingly, the American government still has no permanent, camera-trained spokesman capable of delivering its views in polished Arabic.”
There is — or was — a solution to this.
During the Cold War, from the Truman administration through the presidency of Bush senior, the United States Information Agency battled skilled Soviet propagandists to extol the virtues of freedom, democracy, rule of law and, as a byproduct, the virtues of the United States.
USIA officers skilled in journalism and public relations were stationed around the globe, most heavily in Third World countries. They knew the movers and shakers in the local media. They could speak the language. They were instantly available for comment.
USIA sponsored training programs for foreign journalists and academics, promoted student exchanges and targeted future leaders for extra care and attention. Storefront USIA libraries stocked with American newspapers, books, magazines and films were a prominent feature of many Third World cities. The libraries were occasionally a target of anti-American demonstrators who would trash the storefronts and then quickly plead with the USIA to rebuild and restock them.
The USIA was a victim of the success it helped engineer. With the Soviet Union gone, the agency became vulnerable to Congress’ resentment at spending on foreign affairs and Washington chipped away at the agency’s budget and staff and, in 1999, killed it altogether.
"Shutting down the USIA was a major mistake," wrote four distinguished foreign-policy specialists who headed the agency under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In a column in The Washington Post, they called for creating a new, autonomous and properly funded USIA to "counter the anti-American tide by convincing people of other countries and cultures that the United States is not just a sometimes overweening superpower but a nation of high ideals, constructive ideas and intentions and worthwhile goals."
If we don’t tell our own story, nobody’s going to tell it for us.