Bush's Failed Campaign To Rebrand America
The administration believes public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.
The problem wasn't Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with—the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.
Back in 2004, the RAND Corporation issued a report that anticipated the main point Floyd would later make from the inside, equally in vain—that the key factor in public diplomacy is not what the U.S. government says but rather what it does.
"Misunderstanding of American values is not the principal source of anti-Americanism," the report concluded. Many foreigners understand us just fine; they simply don't like what they see. It's "some U.S. policies [that] have been, are, and will continue to be major sources of anti-Americanism." (Italics are in the original.)
One crucial aspect of this problem antedates George W. Bush's presidency. It goes back to the mid-1990s, when Jesse Helms, then the xenophobic Republican chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, gutted the U.S. Information Agency and swept its tattered remnants into a dark, dank corner of the State Department.
In its Cold War heyday, the USIA had been a fairly independent agency mandated with blaring the principles of American culture and democracy across the world. It sponsored jazz concerts and radio broadcasts, speaking tours, public libraries filled with classic political documents. The operation was so independent from policy-makers that, during the 1960s and early '70s, some American scholars sent out on USIA-sponsored speaking tours openly opposed the Vietnam War.
The agency's relative independence—and its staff's attunement to foreign cultures and languages—conveyed an attractive image of America. But it was also what annoyed Sen. Helms, and so he dismantled the whole operation.
Price Floyd traces the decline of America's standing in the world to this moment. "Back then, the USIA transmitted American values—and this was separate from selling American policy," he said. "The two aren't separated now. There's no entity that makes it possible to separate them. So, if you disagree with our policy, which is easy to do now, then you hate America, too."
In the interview and in his Star-Telegram op-ed piece, Floyd called for something like a restoration of the old USIA, at least in spirit—a return to public diplomacy (as opposed to public relations), a sustained demonstration that America is about more than bombs and soldiers, a realignment of America's words and its actions.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.