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Reviewed by John H. Brown, Ph.D.

John Hughes, Islamic Extremism and the War if Ideas: Lessons from Indonesia, Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-8179-1164-5, 138 pp. Hardcover, $19.95

This slim volume by a Voice of America director during the early years of the Reagan administration (March 1982 – August 1982) says some reasonable things, but from a rather naïve point of view. It’s about U.S. public diplomacy, the subject of dozens of reports since 9/11. The book also deals with Indonesia (along with Turkey) as “potential allies in the war of ideas with Islamic extremism.” But despite its title, its central focus is the current state of American public diplomacy — in Part I, “The Rise and Fall of USIA,” and Part IV, “What We Should Do.”

John Hughes — a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who currently teaches international communications at Brigham Young University — correctly understands that public diplomacy cannot be effective without the informational, educational, and cultural activities of American diplomats overseas who develop “extensive contacts in media and politics in the lands” where they serve. Official statements from Washington or VOA news programs are not enough for the U.S. government to establish significant contact with foreign audiences.

What’s also needed, and importantly, are “professional communicators with a passion for telling the American story.” When they worked for the United States Information Agency (established in 1953) before its “dysfunctional” consolidation into the State Department in 1999, such public diplomacy practitioners “were not hobbled by the bureaucracies of their embassies because they reported not to the State Department in Washington but to area directors of their own agency … who shared and understood the overall mission.”

Hughes — who, not surprisingly, advocates the creation of a rebooted public diplomacy agency “headed by a director of cabinet rank”— evidently agrees with the sensible and oft-quoted words of Edward R. Murrow, USIA director during the Kennedy administration, that public diplomacy “must be in on the take-offs as well as the crash landings of foreign policy.” “The president need not accept the advice from a director of public diplomacy,” Hughes writes, “but the decision process would be helped by at least a discussion of the foreign opinion consequences of major foreign policy initiatives.”

Reflecting many PD reports that appeared before his, Hughes has a worthwhile — but grab-bag — 15-page listing of recommendations  (“agenda for progress”) for revitalizing public diplomacy in ten areas (here with their main points):

1. Budget: More money for public diplomacy, currently dwarfed by military spending.
2. Journalists: Increase the access of foreign journalists to Washington decision-makers.
3. Language: More training in high-priority languages for diplomats.
4. Exchanges. Expand them.
5. Culture: More resources for cultural diplomacy. 6. Religion: Inject religious faith into public diplomacy programs (in my view, such a recommendation could backfire; and it is an American tradition to separate religion from politics).
7. Sports: Encourage them; they “can go where politics cannot.”
8. Women: Advocate “the evolution of Muslim women in education, business, and politics.”
9. Broadcasting: Reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the entity that oversees US international broadcasting; use the new social media.
10. Listening: Poll of foreign publics.

Hughes’s advocacy of  a “new USIA” may seem to some grandiose if not slightly Orwellian — he argues that this hoped-for entity, not to be a “carbon copy” of the old,  should be a “catalyst, motivating other agencies, entities, foundations, nations, and the American people, to take constructive measures alone, or in partnerships, for worthy American goals” (the “Smith-Mundt Act, which precludes U.S. government public diplomacy departments from projecting internally what they project abroad, should be revisited,” he writes). (1)

Still, Hughes convincingly identifies many of the ills plaguing US public diplomacy, giving solid recommendations on how to improve it. And he is justifiably critical of President Obama’s “personal odyssey of public diplomacy” because of its lack of follow-up.

But this Wales-born journalist’s view of the world, and America’s role in it, suggests a certain USA-all-the-way naïveté which, perhaps, reflects a grateful immigrant’s well meaning conviction that his adopted land, under freedom-proclaiming presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, can do no wrong.

Hughes’s coverage of Indonesia — he believes the country, from which he reported for several years, is a model of how a Muslim country can reject terrorism and accept democracy — does suggest that he is familiar with foreign societies and can, to some degree, empathize with them; he also praises Turkey, another non-Arab nation, as an ally against violent extremism.

But for him America is so exceptional — “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” as he approvingly quotes Ronald Reagan on page 1 of his book — that he does not mention how US policies during this decade have been marked by violations of basic human rights in morally reprehensible places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

“George W. Bush,” Hughes states at the conclusion of his book, “demonstrated that furthering liberty around the world was central to his foreign policy.” But an insightful journalist like Hughes, with a eye for the fine detail, seems unwilling to acknowledge the hostility with which Bush’s “freedom” project was met overseas, perceived as it was, by both friend and foe alike, as covering up military aggression, unilateralism, and plain idiocy that had little to do with values about human dignity Americans — and non-Americans — hold dear.

That, and not simply the demise of the USIA or insufficient resources for public diplomacy, is what made America a world pariah, during much of the Bush II era, to the great detriment of American national interests.End.

Full Disclosure: As a USIA Junior Officer in London, England, in the early 80s, perhaps my most important assignment was to find pants that fitted the waist of Mr. Hughes, then VOA Director, for his formal attire required for his attendance, again if I remember correctly, at the Royal Ascot Horse Race, accompanying USIA Director Charles Z Wick. I found the pants, and thus (I still tell myself) did get a forward assignment.

(1) Plans for the creation of a USIA on steroids — Hughes writes favorably about senator Sam Brownback’s plan to establish a National Center for Strategic Communications that would fold the BBG and VOA into one agency — are reminiscent of the first U.S. government information agency, the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), which did not distinguish between overseas and domestic propaganda; at its peak, it was served by 150,000 people, according to its head, George Creel.  See John Brown, “The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States,” Public Diplomacy Alumni Association


Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic.  He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).


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