On March 19, President Bush spoke directly to an audience that may prove to be among America’s most important allies in the War for the Free World: the Iranian people. He did so by associating himself and his country with their long-denied aspiration for freedom – an aspiration that continues to be suppressed, in his words, by “a regime that says they have elections but they get to decide who’s on the ballot, which is not a free and fair election.”
Mr. Bush added, “The people of Iran can rest assured that the United States – whether I’m president or [it’s] the next president – will strongly support their desires to live in a free society.” What happens in the next eight months may determine whether these words amount to empty rhetoric, or a real program for undermining the Iranian mullahocracy that survives a presidential transition.
Interestingly, the instrument Mr. Bush chose for this salvo in the battlefront known as the War of Ideas was Radio Farda. That Farsi-language network receives financial support from the U.S. government under the sponsorship of “surrogate” broadcast services Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
As it happens, Radio Farda and its official U.S. counterpart, the Voice of America’s Persian Service, have reportedly engaged in recent years in practices that have raised questions about whose side they were on. Whistle-blowers and independent monitors have repeatedly warned that these agencies broadcast into Iran programming that actually advances not the cause of freedom, but the agenda of the Iranian regime that President Bush has correctly decried. Improvements have been made at Radio Farda by Jeff Gedmin, the new and highly regarded head of RFE/RL, but concerns about program content persist.
Such concerns have outraged Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security subcommittee charged with overseeing U.S. international broadcasts. A champion of transparency in government, Sen. Coburn has for years sought to obtain transcripts of all Farsi-language broadcasts from those charged with managing the relevant radio services: the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Unfortunately, understandable frustration that successive commitments to provide such transparency have gone largely unfulfilled, due to the unfunded cost of transcribing many thousands of hours of programming, has had a most undesirable result. Sen. Coburn has put a hold on the nomination of James Glassman, the current BBG chairman, to become what amounts to America’s combatant commander in the War of Ideas.
It is a powerful indictment of the sorry state of the Nation’s organizing for and conduct of information operations and other forms of political warfare that this role has been conferred by statute upon the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. But, until the law is changed, that position is the focal point for all such U.S. government efforts – including the authorization of those that might be carried out by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The effect of denying Senate confirmation to Jim Glassman – an accomplished man of ideas with considerable experience with journalism, broadcasting and public policy – is appalling. It allows caretaker State Department bureaucrats to preside over, and generally to impede, the execution of all government information campaigns in the so-called War on Terror. We are engaging in unilateral disarmament on what is, arguably, one of the most critical battlefields of all: the need to counter today’s totalitarian ideology, Islamofascism, emanating from Iran, Saudi Arabia and their respective proxies elsewhere around the world.
Readers of this column know that matters on this score are made much worse by the success of influence operations being waged against our government at the hands of admirers of Islamism. For example, the last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, described a beneficiary of a $20 million grant to Georgetown University from a Saudi prince, Professor John Esposito, as her “guru” and paid court to a Muslim Brotherhood front organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
A similar penetration of the Defense Department by that same Brotherhood front seemingly will result Wednesday in the cashiering of the Pentagon’s preeminent expert on Islamofascism, Stephen Coughlin, at the hands of another ISNA admirer still serving in the office of Deputy Secretary Gordon England, Hisham Islam.
Under the circumstances, what is probably needed is a complete re-do – the reconstitution of a separate agency charged with devising and executing America’s international information operations. Dismantling the entity that performed this function during the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency, was just one of the precipitous and strategically portentous mistakes made in the heady days following the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is among those on Capitol Hill said to be currently considering legislation to rectify this error.
In the meantime, we need to make the best of the present, substantially dysfunctional and inadequately transparent arrangement. That will more likely be achieved by the confirmation without further delay of Jim Glassman than by allowing the clock to run out on the remaining months of the Bush Administration without strong leadership in the key State Department post. The latter course would be an invitation to further incoherence and potentially devastating setbacks in the War of Ideas for the duration of the Bush presidency, and a lost opportunity to shape the next president’s approach to waging that war.