The Reagan administration, concerned by adverse European reaction to the U.S. air strikes against Libya in April, is considering establishing a special new State Department "public diplomacy" office that would seek to make foreign public opinion more sympathetic to U.S. antiterrorist activities.
U.S. officials said in recent interviews that the proposed new office would be modeled on the department's highly active Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Since its creation in 1983, the Latin America operation has been a major force in the administration's efforts to build popular support for President Reagan's controversial Central America policies.
However, the officials added, while the Latin America public diplomacy effort has been aimed mainly at domestic American audiences, the new office would focus on foreign countries -- primarily in Western Europe and the Middle East -- where public opinion has generally been hostile to Reagan's advocacy of an aggressive stance against international terrorism.
The officials said that tentative plans involve an office within the State Department that would direct and coordinate the efforts of all federal agencies in the foreign policy area to argue the U.S. case through speeches, contacts with press and academic circles and the preparation of position papers. The officials said the leading candidate to head the office appears to be Marshall Brement, a career diplomat who was formerly ambassador to Iceland.
However, the officials noted that a decision to move ahead has been delayed by concerns about costs at a time when Congress is imposing tight budgetary restraints on the State Department. They added that some of the agencies involved, citing the highly secret nature of counterterrorism work, fear that such an office might become a source of leaks or be so constrained by security considerations that it could not perform its mission effectively.
As a result, some administration officials reportedly feel that a wiser course would be to scale down the idea and, instead of creating a separate office, give the State Department's Office for Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning, headed by Robert B. Oakley, more personnel and authority to engage in public diplomacy.
But, the officials stressed, whatever course is chosen, there is agreement that the administration, instead of reacting to individual terrorist incidents in piecemeal fashion, must make a much more concerted effort to convince public opinion in friendly countries of the need for cooperation.
The April 15 air strikes in retaliation for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's alleged support of terrorism sparked a hostile reaction in most of Europe and threatened to strain U.S. relations with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
The recriminations hurled back and forth across the Atlantic became so acrimonious that Lord Carrington, the NATO secretary general, felt compelled to call for a "West-West dialogue" to prevent the debate from being reduced to a level that he described as "American cowboys versus Euro-wimps."
That concern is shared by the administration, which in the aftermath of the Libya raids set up an interagency working group, with representatives from the State Department, the National Security Council, the U.S. Information Agency and the Defense Department, to consider ways of explaining the U.S. position more effectively to domestic and foreign opinion.
The working group, following what some participants described as "a 60-day action plan," took a number of initiatives. In addition to cranking out documents detailing the size and nature of the international terrorist threat, the group arranged a recent seminar at the State Department for foreign journalists that included an address by Secretary of State George P. Shultz. But, officials said, the main emphasis was on dealing with the public diplomacy aspects of the problem over the long range.
The proposed new office would formalize that role. Its activities would include dealing with American audiences and explaining U.S. responses to future acts of terrorism. However, the officials said, it was agreed from the outset the principal focus should be on educating the public in other countries to the dangers of terrorism and arguing the U.S. view that it is necessary to fight back rather than submit to terrorist blackmail.
The officials said that at different times consideration was given to putting the office under the National Security Council or assigning it to USIA, which has responsibility for most U.S. information activities abroad. In the end, though, it was decided that the office, if it is created, should be located within the State Department, where its activities can mesh closely with those of Oakley's counterterrorism office.