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James Glassman Commands Washington's'Battle of Ideas'

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Stock market guru, television commentator and magazine publisher — James K. Glassman has done it all. For years, this self-professed libertarian has peddled his controversial views on everything from growth-stimulus tax programs to global warming. And now, for the first time in his career, Glassman is drawing a government salary as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. As such, the 61-year-old executive leads the Bush administration’s much-hyped “battle of ideas” — a lofty, some say unrealistic, effort to get foreigners to like the United States while discouraging extremist violence through diversions like sports and entertainment.

The Washington Diplomat recently caught up with Glassman, interviewing him for exactly 42 minutes in his seventh-floor office at State Department headquarters.

“Public diplomacy is, very simply, communicating with the public,” he explained. “In official diplomacy, a foreign minister might try to persuade another foreign minister to do the right thing. What we do is talk to publics, not foreign ministers. The way we define public diplomacy is understanding, engaging, informing and persuading foreign publics. It’s a big mandate, obviously.”

Glassman took on his latest challenge in June, replacing Texas Republican activist and longtime Bush aide Karen Hughes, who once ambitiously declared that one of her greatest accomplishments was “transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security priority central to everything we do in government.”

A Harvard graduate, Glassman said he’s more focused on emphasizing educational and cultural exchanges in what he calls a “very well-run operation” that brings about 50,000 visitors a year to this country, many of them students and academic experts.

“This is kind of traditional public diplomacy,” he said. “We think the best way to get people to have good opinions of America is putting them face to face with Americans. The problem is, we can only do so many.”

Nevertheless, Glassman’s office clearly has the resources to do quite a bit, spending around 0 million a year, of which two-thirds goes to public affairs.

“Most of my time is spent on one aspect of public diplomacy that we call the war of ideas,” Glassman explained. “In terms of dollars, it’s not particularly significant. But two years ago, the president designated the undersecretary of state as the lead in the war of ideas.

“Our mission is very focused,” he continued. “It’s mainly involved with counterterrorism, and it is to help create an environment that’s hostile to violent extremism. We do that in two ways. One is by directly engaging and confronting the ideology of violent extremism — the al-Qaeda extremism. We’re not always the most credible voice in opposing this ideology, so we do what we can. It’s not all that difficult because these countries understand full well that they are as threatened as we are — if not more so — by violent extremists.”

Asked if the United States is winning this “battle,” Glassman didn’t hesitate. “I think we’re making considerable headway,” he insisted. “Support for al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and suicide bombing has been declining for the past two or three years throughout the Middle East. In Jordan, for example, public support for suicide bombing has dropped from 57 percent to 20 percent. Al-Qaeda contains the seeds of its own destruction, but we want to hurry that destruction along.”

In the meantime, he said, “we’re offering young Arabs alternatives through entrepreneurship, entertainment, even sports. Our effort is one of diversion. We’re not telling people they’ve got to be just like us. We’re saying we will do whatever we can to discourage them from following a course of action that will [lead to them] becoming suicide bombers.”

Yet the effort is laden with controversy. Hughes often made headlines as much for her outreach efforts as for her missteps in the Muslim world. When she departed the post at the end of 2007, polls showed no improvement in the world’s view of the United States since she took over in 2005.

Glassman — a Bush appointee who himself has only a few months left in office — didn’t comment directly on Hughes, though he did say he’s made cultural and citizen exchanges his priority. For instance, he’s invited half a dozen Arab diplomats to his home for an informal diwaniya — a Persian Gulf tradition where men gather in a private home to talk politics and anything else that might be on their minds.

“I’m spending more of my time on this particular aspect of a very broad portfolio than Karen chose to. Any good manager looks at his or her background and decides what they can contribute,” he said. “Given my own background as a journalist and scholar, it made sense for me to focus on this part of the job.”

Best-known for his market analyses and commentary on economic and equities investing, Glassman has been a reporter and columnist for more than 40 years. Among other things, he’s the author of an overly optimistic 1999 book, “Dow 36,000,” and former resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

As a syndicated columnist, his articles have appeared in every major U.S. newspaper and magazine including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes and Reader’s Digest.

From 1987 to 1993, Glassman was editor and part owner of Roll Call, a twice-weekly newspaper that covers Congress. Before that, he had a long career in magazine publishing, as president of the Atlantic Monthly, executive vice president of U.S. News & World Report, and publisher of the New Republic.

Some of Glassman’s articles include: “How to Avoid Investing in Crooked Businesses,” “The Bottomless Well: No Need to Curb Energy Consumption,” “Amtrak is Anti-American,” “The Two Faces of Lou Dobbs” and “Certainty of Catastrophic Global Warming is a Hoax.”

Until recently, Glassman was also chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a completely separate operation with an annual budget of roughly 0 million. He continues as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s representative on that board.

The nine-member BBG supervises all U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (which oversees Radio and TV Martí), Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network.

The operations, particularly in the Middle East, are the centerpiece of U.S. government efforts to promote democracy overseas, although Glassman insists the broadcasts are more than just administration mouthpieces.

“The BBG serves as a firewall between the State Department and the broadcasters, so if some ambassador gets ticked off about something VOA broadcasts, he has to go through the BBG. It’s an important distinction Congress felt was necessary, in order to give our journalists the independence they needed,” Glassman said. “So our operation, unlike those of other countries, is not a propaganda tool or even an advocacy tool. We explain American policies, but we do show opinions that are opposed to our own.”

In fact, sometimes the broadcasts have been accused of showing too much opposing opinion. The BBG-run Al-Hurra TV — a sophisticated, regional network that seeks to win over the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs from Marrakesh to Muscat — has been accused of beaming pro-terrorist, anti-Israeli rhetoric to win over those hearts and minds.

According to a CBS “60 Minutes” investigation titled “U.S.-Funded Arab TV’s Credibility Crisis,” in addition to airing questionable content, Al-Hurra “has been undermined by loose financial and editorial controls, while its executives try to manage 24-hour news in a language most of them don’t understand,” the report charged.

Glassman defended Al-Hurra — which means “the free one” in Arabic. “60 Minutes unfairly portrayed Al-Hurra, which is watched by 26 million Arabic speakers in the Middle East each week,” Glassman said in a press statement following the report. “Independent research tells us that Al-Hurra is relevant to people who value its balanced news and information about the region and about the United States.”

But the next day, the Washington Post — far from calling it relevant — described Al-Hurra as a “flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission.” The article went on to detail how the endeavor — which has cost taxpayers 0 million — has been beset by embarrassing journalistic gaffes, inexperienced management and bad programming that struggles to compete with the multitude of other Arabic-language shows, including Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

Asked if the TV network competes with Al Jazeera, Glassman said yes and no. “We have a different mission, which is to talk about U.S. policy and what’s happening outside the Middle East that has relevance to the region. We’re not trying to grab market share from Al Jazeera, but the management of Al-Hurra understands that people in the Middle East want to know the truth.”

That effort also applies to Iran, where Voice of America, for example, beams seven hours of Farsi-language programming daily. “BBG spends a lot of money every year to find out how much the audience is in every one of our 60 separate language services,” Glassman noted. “According to research done by third parties, 28 percent of Iranians tune in at least once a week to VOA’s TV broadcasts.”

Another place Glassman hopes to increase U.S. influence is Cuba. In fact, since 1985, Washington has spent nearly 0 million on Radio and TV Martí — despite documented allegations of mismanagement within the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting, as well as widespread criticism that TV Martí broadcasts are jammed by the Castro regime and virtually impossible to receive.

That’s nonsense, counters Glassman, whose outer office features a poster honoring May 21 as Cuba Solidarity Day.

“TV Martí is reaching more and more Cubans,” he claimed. “Over the last couple of years, we have devised ways of broadcasting much more effectively, mainly from airplanes. TV Martí now operates on two separate frequencies, Channel 13 and Channel 20. We do know from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that people are watching it.”

As Cubans get more access to satellite dishes, viewership will increase — despite the Castro government’s attempt to intercept TV Martí’s signal, Glassman adds.

“We’re not commercial broadcasters. What we’re trying to do is give people in countries like Cuba access to the truth about what’s going on in the world — accurate news, public affairs and cultural programming. So if the people of Cuba are exposed to hundreds of channels on satellite broadcasting, that’s fine with us,” he said.

“What Radio and TV Martí do that no one else is currently doing and no one else will do is tell people in Cuba what’s happening in their own country. They may be watching Miami TV, but Miami TV is not going to tell them about food shortages or a demonstration that recently occurred on the outskirts of Havana.”

Yet Glassman stresses that the State Department “does not dictate” the content or objectivity of U.S. government broadcasts in any way — whether the listener is in Havana or Hanoi.

“This is real, unbiased and professional journalism, showing all responsible opinions on different subjects,” he insisted. “We are not simply a mouthpiece of the administration.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999