As America becomes increasingly involved in the global war on terrorism, the Bush administration is planning to shut down its worldwide English-language broadcasts on the Voice of America. This is a serious error.
After almost 64 years as a reliable intellectual lifeline to foreign listeners, the Voice of America's English news broadcasts will be silenced everywhere but in Africa on Oct. 1. This comes at a time when al-Jazeera and China Radio International, for example, are adding English programming and expanding into the Western world.
Beginning in the Clinton administration, the federal government has not been wise about reaching foreign audiences. It killed the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), America's sophisticated purveyor of “public diplomacy,” in 1999 and reconfigured and screwed up the once-effective Voice of America (VoA), starting with the purposeful diminishment of the director's political independence and authority by removing the post from Senate hearings and confirmation.
It was Republican Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) and Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, who formed an alliance to cut agency's throat after President Bill Clinton appointed a weak agency director who was unable to defend himself and the USIA.
The Cold War is over and we are about to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation between nations, so who needs all this propaganda machinery? was the thinking. But before the Clinton people and then the Bushies could finish a few choruses of “We Are the World” the country did need it, but it was dead and buried.
And now the administration wants to kill the English broadcasts that are listened to and depended on by millions of foreign listeners, particularly educated elites, the people who make or influence policy decisions. In foreign countries where English is not the predominant language it is often spoken and understood by the leadership and intellectuals.
In India, for example, millions of people rely on VoA as their primary source of news and information about America and the world, and they listen in shortwave, archaic to westerners but not to people in poor, rural areas of foreign lands.
We are in the middle of a long, long war against terrorists. To its credit, the Bush administration has faced that threat with courage. But it has paid a big price in vilification and partisan hatchetry.
The Bush administration is intelligently pursuing some foreign audiences, particularly in the Middle East. For example, Radio Farda to Iran, a joint operation of VoA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the old Cold War broadcasters, appears successful, and the government is spending money on Radio Sawa and the Arabic-language Alhurra TV broadcasts.
But the struggle with radical Islamists is not just in the Mideast, nor is it just about capturing terrorists, or killing them, or thwarting their evil actions against us, although God knows that's important. It is in the war of words and ideas, the War of Vastly Different Ideologies, that we want America to excel worldwide, and it is not.
I was the director of the Voice of America for the last five years of the Cold War. I know how important “the radios” were in ending that war, and so do the people of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern-bloc nations of Europe. Like me, they know this particularly in retrospect, often the principal way we understand the things that count.
The amount of money saved by these pending changes in the dropping of VoA worldwide English broadcasting is piddling, nothing compared to the weekly, no the daily, waste in the federal budget.
It would be good someday to look back on the intelligent strengthening of the Voice of America at a time when it was badly needed.
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