Bush confidante Karen Hughes has been directing a State Department effort to sell American policies to a skeptical world. But media affairs director Price Floyd thought it was a misguided effort, and so after 17 years at State, he quit. Floyd explains why diplomacy is not a matter of P.R. spin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. They call it public diplomacy, the State Department's attempts to enlighten a skeptical world about American policy and American values by engaging media and opinion leaders abroad.
For the Bush administration, this hasn't been going so well. Survey after survey demonstrate that the U.S. is seen as ever-more arrogant and its policies, ever-less attractive.
Until recently, this so-called hearts and minds battle was the job of Price Floyd, former director of media affairs at the U.S. State Department.
But in an Op-Ed piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Floyd explained why he finally walked away from the job and a 17-year State Department career. He joins me now. Price, welcome to the show. PRICE FLOYD: Thank you, Bob. Glad to be here. BOB GARFIELD: I've read your piece. You are one dispirited guy. Why? PRICE FLOYD: As you said, I was at the State Department for 17 years, and a 17 years that was filled with amazing events around the world. And the biggest of those events was 9/11.
Right after that happened, my office, I mean — other people in the State Department really went into overdrive to push America's foreign policy and its goals in the battle against terrorism to an audience around the world.
In the past, we would have amazingly hard times trying to get any story or interview, but after 9/11 it was really easy. People were engaged. They wanted to know what we were doing to stop this and to fight this.
But what I found in the six years since 9/11, as we were doing more of that, poll numbers and opinions of the U.S. were going down. And so I started raising these kind of concerns in meetings. You know, it's not the package. It's the actual substance that people were having problems with. BOB GARFIELD: So if public diplomacy isn't finding a good public relations way to justify your policies, what should public diplomacy be?
PRICE FLOYD: I think it should be two things. It should be through our actions - doing good deeds, you know, delivering humanitarian assistance to countries that need it. The Pakistan earthquake relief effort is a perfect example of that. We don't need to spin that or try to sell that. We just need to do it.
The other half on public diplomacy is engaging publics overseas by having exchanges, bringing people here to America to see what we're about, sending Americans overseas.
The U.S. government used to send speakers overseas during the Vietnam War to talk about freedom of speech; you can disagree with the government. And those speakers disagreed with our policies in Vietnam. And the message that sent was immense.
I can't imagine this government sending speakers to different countries who disagreed with our policy in Iraq today. BOB GARFIELD: What is it, then, about this government that can't grasp the difference between PR spin and genuine diplomacy? PRICE FLOYD: PR spin has the potential to work fast. You put an ad out, you do a glossy magazine spread, which we tried, to reach the Arab market, called Hi Magazine. And if it works, the response could be quick. Public diplomacy takes time. It takes years. And people don't want to wait years. BOB GARFIELD: After 9/11, there was this moment where there was just a huge outpouring of goodwill towards the United States. What did the State Department do wrong, and what should it have done six years ago? PRICE FLOYD: Imagine if they had gone around the world, like former Secretary Baker did in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War and, therefore, by this actions, not just his words, but by his actions, he showed that he was talking to and listening to world leaders about what we should do, imagine the kind of response we could have gotten there about Iraq, in particular. First the Persian Gulf War turned out completely different. You know, same thing in Kosovo. Our actions followed our words.
Iraq, and when we said why we're going in, it didn't line up, and people know that. People aren't stupid. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo added to that. BOB GARFIELD: In the introduction, I took some pains to point out that you were a 17-year employee of the State Department. Are you just a guy who was a political malcontent from the beginning and took 17 years to finally split? PRICE FLOYD: No, I was actually a big supporter of us going into Iraq. I believed, as most people did, that there were weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein had gassed and killed his own people, and the very idea of those kinds of weapons getting in the hands of terrorists was frightening.
When we went in, we didn't find anything. When asked by the press, would you have done the same thing if you'd have known what you know now – the right answer would be, of course not. We wouldn't go in if he didn't have weapons of mass destruction. He couldn't harm anyone. Why would we go in? But that's not [LAUGHS] what they said. They said, I'd do the same thing again, even knowing there's no weapons.
So if that's the administration's outlook, what possible information or ideas could I bring to the table that would be listened to? BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about Karen Hughes, who is the current hearts and minds tsarina. Do you think that she understands that there is a cognitive dissonance between our words and our actions? PRICE FLOYD: I've met with her several times. She is one of the most dynamic people I have ever been around. She is truly impressive. But she comes at it from a press/media angle, and public diplomacy I don't think is that.
I think now – I mean, this is bigger than Karen Hughes, it's bigger than the State Department. It's going to mean an administration change. Someone new is going to have to come in. No matter who that is, Republican or Democrat, I think people around the world would give them the benefit of the doubt, at least at first. But having a press conference is not going to take care of anything. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Price, thank you so much for joining us. PRICE FLOYD: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Price Floyd is currently director of external relations for the Center for New American Security, a bipartisan Washington think tank. He was formerly director of media affairs for the U.S. Department of State.