The Obama/Clinton State Department: Diplomatic Strength is Essential By Gregory Hilton

Hillary Clinton's State Department is expected to place a major emphasis on public diplomacy, but that promise has been made before and it will be difficult to fulfill in an era of declining budgets.

Hillary Clinton's State Department is expected to place a major emphasis on public diplomacy, but that promise has been made before and it will be difficult to fulfill in an era of declining budgets.


President-elect Barack Obama is expected to announce his new national security team on Monday at a press conference in Chicago. The highlight will be the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State. The decision to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon and to name retired General James Jones as the new National Security Adviser has already proven to be popular with the national security community. The Republican leadership has publicly promised not to be obstructionist, and this is essential at a time when the nation faces so many foreign policy and international economic challenges.

Thankfully, in the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the vast majority of Americans have understood the importance of military strength. The United States steadily increased its defense budget throughout the Bush Administration, and very few lawmakers vote against the annual defense appropriations bill. Unlike the presidential campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, defense spending was never an issue in 2008.

Progress has been made in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where casualty rates have declined by 90%. The new team is already committed to the deployment of two additional combat brigades in Afghanistan, and our next Commander-in-Chief will find united support for this on Capitol Hill. As of now, it certainly appears our military will continue to be the world’s best trained, best equipped and best led. The transformation to a lighter and more mobile military is not complete, but there is no indication the Obama team is planning to make any radical changes.

President Bush will leave his successor with a strong military but a lack of strength in diplomacy. The American cause is misunderstood in many parts of the world, and our efforts in recent years to appeal to global hearts and minds have not been successful. Our communication failure is especially ironic, because America invented both Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

The Bush Administration failed to effectively promote acceptance of America’s mission and goals overseas. Then Senators Obama and Clinton made this criticism during the campaign. Their accusations were supported by a blistering report issued last July by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The report was requested by the U.S. Congress, and it emphasized that there were no State Department employee overseas whose only focus involved public diplomacy outreach efforts. According to the report, the State Department “makes no special effort to recruit individuals into the [public-diplomacy] career track who would bring into the Foreign Service experience or skills specifically relevant to the work of communicating with and influencing foreign public opinion.”

Developing public opinion obviously involves many factors. But in retrospect it now appears the Clinton administration made a mistake in 1999 when it terminated our major public arm, the United States Information Agency (USIA). USIA was merged with the State Department that year, and the post of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy was created.

The new Administration now confronts an extremely daunting task. During the Bush Administration, four people served in the position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Margaret Tutwiler, Charlotte Beers, Karen Hughes and James Glassman all had an excellent relationship with the President, and they were dedicated professionals. They all spoke of constant frustrations in coping with the Foreign Service bureaucracy, and the office was vacant for 25 months.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the office “is in disarray, in a department that doesn’t want it. … In 1999, State devoured and scattered USIA’s personnel and bureaus. Next, senior managers created the undersecretariat as an advisory position with no significant budget and no authority over public diplomacy personnel.”

America’s most troublesome security problems are in predominantly Muslim countries. The United States is certainly not against the Islamic faith, and since 1990 has fought in six wars to protect Muslims. The United States liberated Kuwait, as well as 25 million people in Afghanistan and another 25 million in Iraq. America saved 250,000 people in Somalia and it stopped the “ethnic cleansing” and massive human-rights violations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Unfortunately, this message has not been relayed to many parts of the Middle East. America does not dictate to any nation, but is keenly interested in promoting democracy, good governance, the rule of law, an independent media, religious freedom, the rights of women and strengthened institutions of civil society.

America’s message is not getting across largely because there is little coordination of overall strategy. I hope the Obama Administration will name an individual who will not confine themselves to the State Department corridors but act as a public diplomacy czar in coordinating many divergent programs. At present, there is too much overlap and many vital outreach efforts are ignored.

This will be one of the new administration’s most difficult tasks, and they must provide the necessary tools. The task is so important that the new Undersecretary should be a member of the National Security Council. In addition, Clinton administration personnel decisions should be reversed.

The new team must ensure our government always proclaims the universal values America espouses — democracy, free markets, human rights and equal justice under law. They represent the strongest weapons in America’s arsenal and are the ultimate guarantors of our freedom and national security. The way to prevail in this struggle is through the power of our ideas, and the task will be difficult because perceptions do not change quickly or easily.

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