June 13, 2011 | Scripps Howard News Service

Last Chance for Public Diplomacy

The right messenger could make a world of difference.

Four Americans have now held the title of “Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs” — three of them under the current administration. President Bush has one last chance and one more year to get it right. I’ll tell you how — but first, let’s take a moment to review the modern history of public diplomacy.

During the Cold War, it was understood that battles of ideas had to be fought — and that they could not be won simply by having diplomats talk to other diplomats at embassy receptions. We also needed to communicate with ordinary people. To that end, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was created. Its work product was not spectacular — it was a government bureaucracy, after all — but it got some things right. In the early 1960s, its director was Edward R. Murrow. Perhaps the greatest broadcast journalist of his generation, he had no problem defending the United States and the White House. (Imagine that!)

Then, in the 1990s — despite a series of bloody attacks by Militant Islamist terrorists — Americans persuaded themselves that all the serious wars had been fought and that it was time to spend the “peace dividend.” That meant shrinking the military, cutting the intelligence budget and, in 1998, shutting down USIA.

A year later, the office of the Under Secretary for Public Affairs was created. President Clinton gave the job to Evelyn S. Lieberman, the White House staffer whose claim to fame was that she had transferred Monica Lewinsky to the Pentagon because the intern was “spending too much time around the West Wing.” Under Lieberman’s tenure, no great advances in public diplomacy took place.

Less than a month after 9/11/01, President Bush gave the post to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Ave. advertising executive who had successfully marketed such products as Uncle Ben’s rice. That there are significant differences between selling products and championing ideas soon became apparent. Beers’ departure from Washington two years later was unlamented.

Next to take the portfolio was Margaret Tutwiler, formerly Secretary of State James Baker’s spokeswoman. She appeared unenthusiastic about the assignment. After six months of inactivity, she left to take a job on Wall Street.

Bush then turned to Karen Hughes, his long-time confidante and advisor, a woman with good instincts about swing voters in the Mid-West but no insight into fundamentalist clerics in the Middle East. To advise her, she turned to the usual suspects — including the university professors who solicit millions of dollars from Saudi petro-billionaires and who are exquisitely sensitive to the perspectives of Arab rulers. (Just coincidence, I’m sure.)

Hughes was energetic. For example, she created far-flung “media hubs” so that, when something happened, American spokesmen abroad could respond in a more timely fashion. But her personalization of public diplomacy — presenting herself to the Muslim masses as a genial “working mom” — did not have the impact intended.

What’s more, Hughes bought into the State Department delusion that you can educate people about the U.S. by dispatching emissaries who are only too eager to tell the world how much they, too, detest George Bush and his policies.

How can the president make progress in public diplomacy in the few months remaining to him? Start by discarding the peculiar notion that America can or should be “liked.” We’re at a critical moment in history — a war is being waged against the U.S. and other free nations by Militant Islamists and their oil-rich enablers. Now is no time for popularity contests.

Concentrate instead on being understood. Bush has articulated his core belief succinctly: “The survival of liberty in our land depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Can it really be so hard to defend that idea to audiences abroad?

Finally and most importantly, Bush should not appoint another political operative as his public diplomacy chief. He should appoint an individual of learning and achievement. There is one obvious choice: Fouad Ajami, the distinguished scholar and author, a Lebanese-born Shia Muslim who is American by choice and conviction.

No one understands the Arab and Muslim worlds better than Ajami. And no one can better explain America and this White House than Ajami, who has written: “Grant Mr. Bush his due: The revolutionary message he brought forth was the simple belief that there was no Arab and Muslim ‘exceptionalism’ to the appeal of liberty.”

Naming Professor Ajami to this position would make a more compelling statement than just about anything else Bush can say or do.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.