Public Diplomacy and Counterrorism
Tuesday, September 11th 2012
Today is a good opportunity to recall the modest role that public diplomacy has played in counter-terrorism since the September 11 attacks.
One of the attackers passed through the security checkpoint at Dulles Airport shortly after I did on September 11, 2001. (A friend who saw the surveillance video revealed this to me.) I was scheduled for a flight to China for a business trip. I was so fortunate. We all mourn the lives of all those who died or lost loved ones on that day -- and in the days and months following.
Public diplomacy was never the best instrument for our government to eliminate this threat, but that didn't stop us from trying. The International Information Programs bureau, where I was deputy coordinator, set up a 24X7 watch desk in the operations center, linked up with the Defense Department, and created several new programs that became part of PD architecture at the State Department. Other ideas and experiments failed.
Ambassador Richard LeBaron spoke recently of setting up a new effort to bring together "overt communications of all kinds to counter the propaganda of Al Qaeda." It's a focused, strategic program that continues under his successor, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez. The tight focus on a specific audience (young people who are susceptible to extremist appeals) is the element that was missing from many predecessors, including Under Secretary James Glassman, who seemed to think that countering terrorists was the main job of public diplomacy.
The Hudson Institute recently published an article by three scholars including Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, titled Organizing for a Strategic Ideas Campaign To Counter Ideological Challenges to U.S. National Security: i.e., Al Qaeda. Mr. Feith et al deliberate over who should be doing this and decide after much deliberation that it should be the National Security Council.
My experience and instincts tell me that the job of countering extremist propaganda has landed where it belongs: in the hands of experienced public diplomacy experts with a precise mandate. Despite the government's best efforts terrorists may strike the United States again. Whatever the future, let's hope that the public can remain united on national defense and learn from long experience.