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The Right Pick to Lead State's Public Diplomacy?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 16 2009

Yesterday, the White House announced the nomination of Judith A. McHale to the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department. That's a post of particular interest for us here because under the tenure of former Under Secretary James Glassman we saw State experimenting with what Glassman called "Public Diplomacy 2.0" -- that is, engaging with adversaries and allies around the world through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other (local and global) high tech mediums in popular use by targeted populations.

But McHale's nomination for the "R" post, as the Under Secretary's slot is known in the secret language of Foggy Bottom, is causing some public diplomacy (PD) advocates some serious agita. The tension in R's role in state is between marketing the American message abroad -- the path that could be said to have been taken by Karen Hughes, the first holder of the post [SEE CORRECTION BELOW] -- and engaging in strategic two-way conversations with the global community, aided where appropriate by the agile use of technology. Glassman went the latter route.

McHale is a former executive with Discovery Communication, the parent company of the Discovery Channel. According to the White House press release, she has worked extensively to broaden Discovery's reach in Africa, Latin America, and Western Europe. McHale also happens to be a generous Democratic donor. The Washington Post's Al Kamen refers to McHale as a "longtime friend" to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a "Democratic mega-donor."

McHale's apparent lack of diplomatic experience has George Washington University's Mark Lynch calling her nomination "a terrible, terrible selection." (Lynch concedes that "I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally.") As National Journal's Amy Harder points out, Glassman is less judgmental on his blog. He calls Lynch's criticisms "unfair." The big question, writes Glassman, is "what she thinks the job is." Pending her Senate confirmation, we will, he notes, "soon find out."

Of course, the buck stops with Secretary Clinton on setting the model for how tech-powered public diplomacy will fare in the Obama-era White House. There are signs that she's eager to grow State's PD 2.0 efforts. Tomorrow, in fact, Clinton will be engaging in a "Digital Town Hall" in conjunction with HowCast -- a relationship started under Glassman's tenure.

CORRECTION: An astute reader to point out that I was completely and totally in error calling Karen Hughes the first person to hold the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy. I misrembered and regret the mistake. Now's a good a time as any to review who's actually held the position. From the State Department:

Name: Evelyn Simonowitz Lieberman
Appointment: Oct 1, 1999
Termination of Appointment: Jan 19, 2001

Name: Charlotte L. Beers
Appointment: Oct 1, 2001
Termination of Appointment: Mar 28, 2003

Name: Margaret DeBardeleben Tutwiler
Appointment: Dec 15, 2003
Termination of Appointment: Jun 16, 2004

Name: Karen P. Hughes
Appointment: Aug 2, 2005
Termination of Appointment: Dec. 14, 2007

Name: James K. Glassman
Appointment: Nominated Dec. 11, 2007