The New York Times, Nov 24, 2004 pA14 col 05 (17 col in)

U.S. Fails to Explain Policies To Muslim World, Panel Says. (Foreign Desk) Thom Shanker.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2004 The New York Times Company

A harshly critical report by a Pentagon advisory panel says the United States is failing in its efforts to explain the nation's diplomatic and military actions to the Muslim world, but it warns that no public relations plan or information operation can defend America from flawed policies.

The Defense Science Board report, which has not been released to the public, says the nation's institutions charged with ''strategic communication'' are broken, and calls for a comprehensive reorganization of government public affairs, public diplomacy and information efforts.

''America's negative image in world opinion and diminished ability to persuade are consequences of factors other than the failure to implement communications strategies,'' says the 102-page report, completed in September. ''Interests collide. Leadership counts. Policies matter. Mistakes dismay our friends and provide enemies with unintentional assistance. Strategic communication is not the problem, but it is a problem.''

The study does not constitute official policy, but it is described by the Pentagon's civilian and military leadership as capturing the essential themes of a debate that is now roiling not just the Defense Department but the entire United States government. The debate centers on how far the United States can and should go in managing, even manipulating, information to deter enemies and persuade allies or neutral nations.

There is little disagreement about the importance and utility of battlefield deception to help assure the success of a military operation and protect American or allied soldiers. But there is great concern among public affairs officials in the military at proposals for regional or even global information operations, especially if those efforts include falsehoods.

The rub is that in an environment of 24-hour news and the Internet, overseas information operations easily become known to the American people, and any specific government-sponsored information campaign not based on fact risks damaging the nation's overall credibility.

The Defense Science Board report, ''Strategic Communication,'' proposes a permanent ''strategic communication structure'' within the White House National Security Council and urges elevated roles and responsibilities for a designated senior officer within other government organizations, including the State Department and the Pentagon.

The report compares the national security challenge of the post-Sept. 11 world to the decades-long struggle against Soviet Communism. But the study then argues that the government's cold-war-era communications institutions have not understood that the Islamic world -- and extremists operating in the Islamic world -- present different challenges. The report scolds the government for casting the new threat of Islamic extremism in a way that offends a large portion of those living in the Muslim world.

''In stark contrast to the cold war, the United States today is not seeking to contain a threatening state empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western Modernity -- an agenda hidden within the official rubric of a 'War on Terrorism,''' the report states.

''Today we reflexively compare Muslim 'masses' to those oppressed under Soviet rule,'' the report adds. ''This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies -- except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends.''

The report says that ''Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies,'' adding that ''when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.''

In the eyes of the Muslim world, the report adds, ''American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.''

The report also says: ''The critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim world is not one of 'dissemination of information' or even one of crafting and delivering the 'right' message. Rather it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none -- the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam.''

Larry Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, said the report had elevated the debate within the Defense Department, but he said no formal decisions had been made about reorganizing how the Pentagon and military communicate.

''We're wrestling with this,'' Mr. Di Rita said. ''But it doesn't change the underlying principle, at least with respect to the Department of Defense. Our job is to put out information to the public that is accurate, and to put it out as quickly as we can.''