Official Washington is abuzz with word that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to tap a longtime friend and Democratic mega-donor as her undersecretary for public diplomacy. Judith A. McHale, one of the area's most prominent female executives, who stepped down in 2006 as president of Discovery Communications, may take a job that has been especially difficult given Washington's reputation abroad.
Her résumé doesn't reflect an excess of diplomatic experience, but we're reminded that this is a job that involves selling a message.
This would be a terrible, terrible selection. I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which "involves selling a message" has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on "branding" America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure.
This is a vital time for public diplomacy. The last few years have seen an emerging consensus on the centrality of public diplomacy and strategic communications. The military has gotten into the "war of ideas" in a big way, while State Department and other civilian efforts have struggled with inadequate budgets or personnel -- prompting Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many others to recommend ramping up the State Department's budget and involvement. Whoever is appointed as Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy needs to be in a position to quickly assert authority over an inter-agency balance currently sharply skewed towards the Pentagon. And that's not even getting into the enormous challenges facing U.S. public diplomacy out there in the real world.
During the Presidential campaign, Obama talked often and effectively about global engagement and public diplomacy. But during the primary I had noted Clinton's inattention to public diplomacy:
Her Foreign Affairs essay says not a single word about public diplomacy or the war of ideas, or even hints at the notion that there might be a vast, complicated Muslim world out there beyond al-Qaeda impatient for real dialogue with a post-Bush America. When she talks about engagement, she seems to mean either talking to friendly leaders or working within institutions. I searched her campaign web site in vain for her ideas on the subject: the term "public diplomacy" turns up only one, unrelated hit on her campaign site, "war of ideas" none, "dialogue and Islam" none. Even her big foreign policy address last week... began by proposing to restore America's moral authority but never offered a single word about public diplomacy or international dialogue or the internal debates in the Muslim world. Even when the address closed by reciting all the "tools" which she would use, public diplomacy didn't make the laundry list.
Clinton's answers on public diplomacy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mirrored Obama's campaign positions, for the most part. But appointing her "long-time friend and Democratic mega-donor" to this crucial position would validate those earlier fears. And that could undermine Obama's promise and cripple America's ability to revamp its engagement with the world at exactly the time that it is needed most. Thus far, "official Washington" has gotten a lot of these rumors wrong... let's hope this is another of them.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.