A Lot To Learn About Diplomacy

mideast peace talks/roadmap graphic
CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson, a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, now covers the State Department. He welcomes feedback.

In a report issued this week, Edward Djerejian, a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Syria and Israel, defines public diplomacy as "the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world."

"Changing Minds, Winning Peace," is the latest in a series of reports issued by government and private groups addressing the general subject of how America attempts to win hearts and minds of people abroad, persuading them the policies of the U.S. are right and just. This report, however, should carry more importance than most, because it its focus was on the 1.5 billion people in the Arab and Muslim world, where American policies, especially on Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, are neither well understood nor well received.

To no one's surprise, the group's report says the government's public diplomacy efforts are "inadequate." Speaking more bluntly to reporters, Djerejian said his group found it "disturbing" during their travels in the region "that we, the United States, are not in any significant way present in the daily discourse, the debates, the conversations, the discussions that are going on in the Arab and Muslim world about us."

More money, bureaucratic restructuring and a higher profile at the White House are among the recommendations made by the panel to boost the impact of public diplomacy. While perhaps delivered with more bluntness that most reports of its kind, this report is not without its critics.

Robert Satloff, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, while praising the "refreshingly blunt assessment," writes that among its main flaws "are its silence on radical Islamism as the core 'hearts and minds' challenge to U.S. interests in the region."

Reporters asked if it wasn't really a question of trying to sell "unpopular policies." Djerejian said, no, it wasn't our policies, it was "that we can do a much better job of explaining the content and context of our policies." Maybe, but his answer was a tough sell in a roomful of reporters and many think it will be a tough sell in the Arab and Muslim world. Another complicating factor is the fact that this administration and its predecessors are willing to do business with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and other regions because they cooperate – at times – in the war on terrorism.

While traveling in Morocco, the group was told, "if you do not define yourself in this part of the world, the extremists will define you." And the report concludes that has been the case, because, in part, "the United States has deprived itself of the means to respond effectively – or even to be a significant part of the conversation."

Perhaps the most shocking revelation made was to disclose the astonishingly small number of those in the foreign service who now have sufficient language skills to do the kind of work which the panel envisions— be able to go on a local television show to "discuss, explain, debate, without hesitation." Of the fewer than sixty Arabists the State department has who speak Arabic at the professional level, the panel determined there are only five who can now play the role envisioned for them.

There's no question everyone agrees there is a problem with the way public diplomacy is practiced now, but it's very much an open question whether Congress will allocate more money. The report does not say how much more is needed, whether the State Department and other agencies can produce hundreds of officials who have Arabic and other language skills needed to convey America's message or whether the White House will accord public diplomacy the higher political and policy profile the advisory group says is necessary.