With Karen Hughes moving into the post of assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, perhaps there will be more attention from the administration, Congress and the public to the difficult mission she is taking on. It has been on the back burner too long.
Defenders and critics of President Bush's war on terrorism agree on very little except this: There is a critical need for a more energetic, imaginative and effective campaign to promote the American ideals of democracy, tolerance, compassion and economic opportunity in the Islamic world.
It is a large and complex challenge requiring some fundamental changes. One possibility came to me during reporting trips to remote reaches of Afghanistan, where I spent time with U.S. Special Forces and units of the 10th Mountain Division.
Both outfits were stationed in hostile territory doing double duty: fighting the Taliban and trying to hold the hearts and minds of Afghan locals by building schools, medical clinics and roads in their isolated villages.
After my first trip, to a 10th Mountain Division base along the border with Pakistan, I worried that the two missions of the military would at some point become incompatible, even incendiary. When the young American warriors went on patrol in their Humvees, local farmers were forced to give way on the primitive roads. The 10th Mountain troops were always dressed in flak jackets, helmets and sunglasses as they moved into villages to confiscate guns, question locals about suspicious activity and inspect trucks and pickups before meeting with the village elders to work on health and education projects.
What image lingered, I wondered. The good cop or the bad cop?
Last spring I spent time with a 12-man U.S. Special Forces team in southeast Afghanistan, in an area hot with Taliban forces. Their base is about an hour north of Kandahar by helicopter. These bright, dedicated young men had been averaging one firefight a week with Taliban fighters coming in from Pakistan.
The Americans were also training Afghan army units, providing the local school with supplies, staffing a clinic with their own medic, teaching Afghan farmers rudimentary construction skills and supporting the local economy.
Yet, when we visited a village, a collection of mud homes and a few hovels passing as general stores selling cheap utensils, I asked the elders if they wanted more American troops in their area and they said, "No, we have enough. These are okay."
What about more Afghan troops?
"Not if they order us around."
With the increased Taliban activity in the rural areas, the U.S. military profile is not about to be lowered anytime soon. But why couldn't there be an additional American face in those areas?
The Special Forces concept -- unconventional warriors chosen for their intelligence, stamina, adaptability and range of skills -- has worked well for the military. Why couldn't it work as well for the Foreign Service?
The State Department could recruit young men and women who want an adventurous life and train them as the Diplomatic Special Forces, a kind of Peace Corps plus. Put them through crash courses in local dialects and skills relevant to the areas where they will be assigned. Place them in military outposts in remote areas, an arrangement that would have the added benefit of forging bonds between the military and the diplomatic corps. Give them extra pay and set the bar high so they have the same elite status as the Pentagon's Special Forces.
My guess is that it would be an appealing prospect for members of the younger generation who want to serve their country but not necessarily in military uniform.
Certainly nongovernmental organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children have no difficulty recruiting staff or volunteers for tough duty in far-off lands. But to ensure their independence, they must keep their distance from U.S. military operations. A Diplomatic Special Forces would not be so constrained. It could become another face of America in the Third World, a face not encased in a Kevlar helmet and wraparound sunglasses.
The writer is the former anchor of "NBC Nightly News" and is a special correspondent for NBC.