Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last November that "Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about the freedom and democracy, about our policies and goals."
Even as radical Islamists are reportedly operating more sophisticated media and communications operations, there is a growing concern that the United States is not communicating with citizens of countries in the Middle East the way it did with people behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War -- when Radio Free Europe and Voice of America were used as weapons in the battle against communism.
Radical Islam is a very different enemy, but many of those same tools can be applied, said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.
"During the Cold War we spent a lot of time communicating American values behind the Iron curtain and that's what animated a generation of dissidents," Berman, the author of Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam, told CNSNews.com.
Berman and others say that the Middle East is ripe for more public diplomacy, defined as direct communications with the citizens of a country, as opposed to official diplomacy, which is engagement with foreign leaders.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) proposed legislation to increase public diplomacy. Meanwhile, numerous studies reflect that the United States lacks defined goals and should involve the private sector more effectively in communicating abroad.
"You need to identify what are essentially the undecided voters. They haven't made up their minds," Berman said. "They're free agents and we're trying to book them. You want to divide and conquer, discredit the ideology, and you want to essentially engage these populations and show them that they don't have to be our friends but the model that these guys [radical Islamists] are laying out is fundamentally wrong. It's bad for your health."
Recognizing concerns about public diplomacy, the State Department will launch a program this year that requires embassies to develop "public diplomacy implementation plans" that address outreach posts, department officials told the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The State Department also plans a pilot program in 12 countries to incorporate a "campaign-style approach to strategic communications," according to a GAO report released in May.
Berman cites the Suni awakening, which along with the surge helped turn things around in Iraq, and which occurred after Muslims realized al Qaeda was hazardous to their health.
"If you don't subscribe to their viewpoint, you end up getting killed. It's not just in Iraq. I think it's in places like Pakistan, like Jordan, like Saudi Arabia," Berman said. "The more proximity the local population has to this movement, the more they realize it's bankrupt -- that al Qaeda works well as a protest movement but not as a governing ideology."
His book cites a Pew Research poll that showed support for Osama bin Laden falling from 56 percent to 20 percent in Jordan from 2003 to 2007; from 20 percent to 1 percent in Lebanon over that time; and from 59 percent to 41 percent in Indonesia over that time.
Meanwhile, in Iran, a World Public Opinion poll taken in early 2008 showed that 60 percent of respondents were against developing nuclear weapons, believing it to be "against the teachings of Islam."
Still, to reach the "undecided voters" in the Muslim world, the West has to compete with a strong propaganda machine established by Islamists, said Berman.
"As long ago as 2002, Osama bin Laden had already identified the 'media war' as one of the 'strongest methods' for promoting al Qaeda's objectives," Winning the Long War says. "He directed his organization to establish an information committee 'charged with spreading the al Qaeda vision of jihad to all Muslims.'"
Meanwhile, Iran state-run broadcasting has an $800 million annual budget, with nine national radio stations, 26 local and eight national TV stations. Among the national TV networks is Press TV, launched to "break the global stranglehold" by U.S. media.
Further, Saudi Arabia has spent about $4 billion a year for the last two decades to spread Wahabi Islam, according to Winning the Long War. In addition, the network al-Jazeera went from four satellites in 1998 to 280 today.
The U.S. spends one-third less on public diplomacy than it did during the Cold War. Part of the Peace Dividend meant dumping the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), as its functions were scaled down and folded into the State Department.
The USIA function was taken over by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which told the GAO that its mission to provide objective news "sets it apart from other strategic communications." That's in contrast to USIA Director Edward R. Murrow, who said in 1963 that the agency's purpose was to "further the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives."
"Folding the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department in 1999 has proven to be an exercise in placing a square peg into round holes," said a Heritage Foundation study from last November on public diplomacy.
"Former USIA employees were incorporated into geographic bureaus, and public diplomacy became simply another element of public affairs," said the Heritage report. "The long-term efforts of public diplomacy were subordinated to the short-term rapid reaction goals emphasized by public affairs."
The U.S. established Radio Sawa and the Alhurra TV stations in 2002 to promote American culture in the Middle East, but the stations focused mostly on music and entertainment.
"America has shifted from having conversations about how society should function to playing Britney Spears and Eminem," Berman said. "That's all great, but Britney Spears and Eminem are not the same as the Constitution."
In March 2007, 11 former Voice of America directors sent a letter to President George W. Bush objecting to cuts being made in the program. "At this critical moment in the post-9/11 era, the United States simply cannot, for its own long-term strategic safety and security, unilaterally disarm in the global contest of ideas," the letter said.
Brownback supported dismantling USIA after the fall of communism. But now he believes the United States must step up its efforts in the war for winning hearts and minds.
He proposed legislation last fall to establish the National Center for Strategic Communications, which would fulfill the role formerly taken by the USIA. It would also take public diplomacy out of the State Department. That would separate public diplomacy and official diplomacy.
"We should not let public diplomacy be held hostage to the official priority of the moment, nor should public diplomacy budgets compete with official diplomatic priorities," Brownback said in a statement last September.
The center created by the legislation would manage U.S.-funded international broadcasts more directly and would enlist the support of private non-profit and non-governmental agencies, which would be eligible for grants to effectively communicate a U.S. message abroad.
"It is still a priority," Brownback spokesman Brian Hart told CNSNews.com. "We do not have a game plan as to when we will introduce it."
The May GAO report said, "The United States' current national communications strategy lacks a number of desirable characteristics identified by GAO, such as clear definition of the problem, desired result and a delineation of agency roles and responsibilities."
It further says that the government must evolve with new communication tools, specifically mentioning Facebook and Twitter.
"Dynamic shifts in how target audiences obtain and use information have led many public diplomacy practitioners to conclude that the United States must more effectively engage emerging social networks and technologies (such as Facebook and Twitter) in order to remain relevant," states the report. "Referred to as 'Public Diplomacy 2.0,' this new approach to strategic communications is exploring ways to operate in this evolving information environment."
Evolving to a changing information environment could be helped by recruiting non-government independent organizations to assist in the effort "to retain agility and avoid unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles," according to a Rand Corporation study this year entitled, "Whither Strategic Communication: A Survey of Current Proposals and Recommendations."
The non-governmental organization, supported in the Brownback legislation, would also conduct research and work as a venture capital firm to promote new ideas for reaching populations, according to the Rand study written by Christopher Paul.
The Heritage study called for establishing a separate agency and taking the authority away from the State Department, similar to what is called for in the Brownback bill. The study also calls for establishing a strategy with defined goals and for the Defense Department to implement strategic communications not just at the country-to-country level, but also at the regional level.
The Bush administration did a poor job at exploiting the generational divide and the democracy movement in Iran, Berman said. But the author thinks the Obama administration has already made a critical mistake by lumping all Muslims together rather than taking a divide-and-conquer approach.
It is not just a poor strategic media, Berman said. Rather, it's a matter of pushing the message out as if operating a political campaign.
For example, he said Al-Jazeera needs more "crossfire moments." That means U.S. diplomats appearing on the network to debunk misinformation because the network is perceived as more authentic in the Middle East.
"We have to compete like it's a campaign. Our enemies, al Qaeda and Iran, are trying to convince these undecided voters that we are a certain way, that we believe certain things, that we should be opposed because of any number of factors," Berman said.
"In a campaign we'd never allow something like that to stand," he said. "If there was an inaccuracy, we'd clarify it. But we really haven't done anything like that. We haven't challenged the way the Iranian government has depicted the United States or what we're trying to do. We haven't really debunked the way radical Muslims talk about us to the broader Muslim world."