Bush's Failed Campaign To Rebrand America
The administration believes public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.
You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd (I hadn't until a few days ago), but his resignation-in-protest, late last March, is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers.
Floyd was director of media relations at Foggy Bottom, the most recent of several diplomatic posts that he'd held over the past 17 years, beginning in the administration of Bush's father.
He explained his reason for quitting in a little-read op-ed piece in the May 25 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (his former hometown newspaper): Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words."
Ever since Sept. 11, the State Department, he noted, has embarked on "an unprecedented effort" to explain U.S. foreign policy to both American and foreign audiences. His office arranged more than 6,500 interviews, half with international media. On any given day, senior officials were doing four or five interviews. And yet, poll after poll revealed rising animosity toward America.
But the problem wasn't our words; as he put it, "What we don't have here is a failure to communicate." Rather, it was our actions, "which speak the loudest of all."
Rejecting the Kyoto treaty, dissing the International Criminal Court, revoking the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo—"these actions," Floyd wrote, "have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. This is the policy we have been 'selling' through our actions." As a result, our words are ignored or dismissed as "meaningless U.S. propaganda."
In a phone interview today, Floyd—who is now director of external relations at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank—elaborated on what led him to abandon his career at the State Department, the only place he'd ever wanted to work.
"I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," he recalled. "They'd say, 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say, 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.' "
He recounted a phone conversation with a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad who wanted Floyd and his colleagues to sell the media more "good-news stories" about the war in Iraq. "I said, 'Fine, tell me a good-news story, I want good-news stories, too.' There was a silence on the other end of the line," he recalled. "It was like you could hear crickets chirping."
Floyd would tell his colleagues that the administration's message was drifting dangerously out of synch with reality. He was finding it increasingly difficult to place officials' op-ed pieces in serious newspapers. Few broadcast media, other than Christian radio networks, wanted to interview the department's experts, dismissing what they had to say as "more blah-blah from the State Department."
After a few recitations of these warnings, his bosses, as he put it, "started telling me to shut up. They didn't want to hear this."
The problem, of course, went—and still goes—well beyond the State Department bureaucracy. Ever since 9/11, President Bush and his top aides have acted as if they needed only to "rebrand" America—devise a slogan or set of images—in order to clear up hostile foreigners' misunderstandings about our nature and intentions.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush's father, who, it turned out, couldn't do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.'s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.
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.