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."
Yet in a report to Congress in October, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy warned that cultural exchanges and similar efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims were "absurdly and dangerously underfunded."
The budget for the State Department's public diplomacy programs worldwide for 2004 is $685 million -- the majority of which does not go to the Muslim world, despite the major shift in emphasis after the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials say. Only $79 million goes to education and cultural exchanges -- the heart of public diplomacy and the largest single expenditure in its budget -- with Middle East and South Asian countries. And the increases since 2001 have been small, with an initial decrease in the first budget after Sept. 11. The budget for the Department of Homeland Security is more than $30 billion.
The numbers of people reached directly by key U.S. programs are extremely small, U.S. officials concede. A new U.S.-sponsored exchange program for Arab and Muslim high school students brought 170 students last year and 480 this year and will bring 1,000 next year. In contrast, about 5,000 exchanges were organized from former Soviet republics in the first year after the Cold War ended, a State Department official said.
Congress has not been much of an ally, in some cases cutting even relatively small proposed increases for cultural and educational exchanges, U.S. officials say.
"We need as a government -- all of us -- to view traditional public diplomacy tools as soft weapons," said Margaret Tutwiler, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, who now works for the New York Stock Exchange. "The activities associated with public diplomacy need to be seriously prioritized on an equal level with an aircraft carrier. Both are equally important."
Much of the U.S. focus over the past three years has been on rebuilding programs cut back or dismantled after the Cold War, when, in the words of one senior U.S. official, the United States "declared victory and the end of history and went home." Now Washington is struggling to get back to the level of foreign cultural programs and exchanges that existed in the 1980s, the official added.
Other U.S. programs now supplement public diplomacy. The new Middle East Partnership Initiative, housed at the State Department, had $100 million for fiscal 2003 to help create nongovernment groups, particularly among women and youth, and to link businesses to support political and economic reforms. And since 2001, the U.S. Agency for International Development has increased its focus on education and job creation in the Muslim world.
The administration has launched a major new broadcasting effort with Radio Sawa in Arabic and Radio Farda in Farsi, as well as Al Hurra, an Arabic-language television station, to counter the growing influence of regional broadcasting outlets. But the three get mixed reviews.
"Sawa seems to be having some impact, but the reaction to al Hurra has been very negative," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and former ambassador to Egypt and Israel. "People watch it once or twice and then turn to al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya -- if they're inclined to look at news."
The democracy initiative, formally launched at the June summits with countries in the Group of Eight and NATO, is the most ambitious U.S. effort to transform the Islamic world. Washington plans to sponsor the first meetings between European, U.S. and Muslim officials to discuss economic and political reform next month.
But the administration has scaled back its goals because of an initial backlash in Muslim societies and fears that the United States might try to impose its form of government, officials said.
President Bush used bold language last November in pledging to end six decades of U.S. policy that opted for stability in the oil-rich region over promoting liberty, including in such key allies as Egypt. Now, however, even some proponents of the effort say Washington needs allies in the war on terrorism too much to press them too hard toward democratization and civil liberties.
In House testimony yesterday, Harrison noted that public diplomacy is "not the work of weeks or months. It is the work of years and generations."
But other U.S. officials say much more funding will be needed to have a meaningful impact.
"There is a total collapse of trust in American intentions and it's only gotten far worse over the past year," Telhami said. "When people hate or resent the United States far more than they dislike bin Laden, how can you succeed? That's the bottom line."