Friday, August 27, 2004


By William Fisher

I am about to hit the third rail of American politics: Saying something less than gushingly laudatory about the 9/11 Commission.

Well, it’s actually less about the Commission than it is about the testimony of some of its members at hearings last week before a couple of committees of the House of Representatives.

The subject was ‘public diplomacy’. Translating this Washington-speak, public diplomacy consists of the things we say and do to get the world to understand and love us. More specifically, the hearings were about how the United States should reach out to the Muslim world.

The Commission’s report was absolutely right in saying that the US cannot win the battle against terrorism with the military alone, that we’re also fighting a war of ideas, and we can only win that war with better ideas. “The United States must do more to communicate its message”, the Commission’s report declares.

But what is the message? According to Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton, and Commission member Jamie Gorelick, the American message needs to be about our moral values, about how generous the American people are, about the need for better education, more libraries, women’s rights, closing the digital divide, and religious, racial and ethnic tolerance.

That’s all good stuff. But Commission members, in their scrupulous and unusual effort to remain nonpartisan, were visibly walking on political eggs to avoid any mention of the indispensable factor in the public diplomacy equation: Policy.

Yet every poll taken in the last few years tells us it is not America that is hated around the world, it is American foreign policy. And neither the Commission witnesses, nor any of the Republicans on these House committees, was prepared to discuss policy.

Only the ranking Democrats on the committees, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, weighed in with policy rants, and even these two Democrats disagreed on many issues. US policy toward Israel, for example.

Which made the discussion about tools. The tools we should be using to influence the world: Broadcasts, exchange programs, aid to strengthen economic development and civil society, and suchlike. This is a useful discussion because, unlikely as it may seem, the country that virtually invented modern communications has not been hugely successful in the way it uses its tools.

But tools are only messengers. They don’t make the message; they simply convey it.

But trying to discuss public diplomacy without discussing foreign policy is like moving bureaucratic boxes around and persuading voters you’ve actually achieved something. It makes hearings like these even more farcical than most of what goes on in Congress.

Ever since the 9/11 Commission issued its final report, the men and women of our Congress have been running for political cover like cats on a hot tin roof. It has been seen as something approaching blasphemy to question any of the Commission’s findings and recommendations – President Bush simply couldn’t wait to get to the Rose Garden to announce he was going to appoint an intelligence czar and create a national counter-terrorism center.

The Commission should not be faulted for avoiding partisan and inevitably rancorous foreign policy debates. That’s what we elect an Administration and a Congress to do. And that’s what we have a right to expect – and aren’t getting – from our quadrennial electoral process.

What is clear is that we have many failed foreign policies and a President who won’t say so. If those are givens, why are we wasting the taxpayers’ money discussing tools?

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.