The Bush administration is facing growing criticism from both inside and outside its ranks that it has failed to move aggressively enough in the war of ideas against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups over the three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Sept. 11 commission last month called for a vigorous strategy for promoting the image and democratic values of the United States around the world, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the administration is working hard on those efforts.
But Middle East experts -- and some frustrated U.S. officials -- complain that the administration has provided only limited new direction in dealing with anti-American anger among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims and is spending far too little on such efforts, particularly in contrast with the billions spent on other pressing needs, such as homeland security and intelligence.
On its boldest policy ideas, such as the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative, the administration has limited its follow-through or deferred to the very governments that have most resisted democratic reforms, specialists and some U.S. officials say.
"It's worse than failing. Failing means you tried and didn't get better. But at this point, three years after September 11, you can say there wasn't even much of an attempt, and today Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. and the degree of distrust in the U.S. are far worse than they were three years ago. Bin Laden is winning by default," said Shibley Telhami, a member of a White House-appointed advisory group on public diplomacy and Brookings Institution scholar.
The dissatisfaction extends to some in the State Department who are involved in public diplomacy.
"This is all feel-good mumbo jumbo," said a State Department official familiar with public diplomacy efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Particularly in light of [people detained without charges at] Guantanamo Bay, it's unclear how this will make us safe. If this is so important, where's the money?"
Top administration officials said yesterday that the United States has redirected funds and designed a wide range of political, economic, educational and aid programs to better lives, press reforms and improve America's image as an ally to Muslims in more than 50 countries.
"The foundation of our public diplomacy strategy is to engage, inform and influence foreign publics in order to increase understanding for American values, policies and initiatives," Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs, said in testimony yesterday before the House International Relations Committee.
Rice, in a speech yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, conceded that public diplomacy is an area the administration wants to "look harder at" and said, "We are not obviously not very well organized for the side of public diplomacy."
But she said the administration has made global outreach a priority and is making important progress, citing among other things increased broadcasting in the Middle East and programs to encourage literacy, democratic reform and education.
The basic goals in the war of ideas are to dispel destructive myths about both U.S. culture and policy and to encourage voices advocating moderation, tolerance and pluralism in the Muslim world, Rice said.
"The victory of freedom in the Cold War was won only when the West remembered that values and security cannot be separated," Rice said. "The values of freedom and democracy as much, if not more, than economic power and military might have won the Cold War."
That thinking tracks recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, which besides calling for reorganization of U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism urged a diplomatic offensive: "If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us."