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Page 3 of 3 -- It is easy to imagine the dramatic effect an influx of funding from the State Department could have on such a low-cost project. Though the youth of Iran are already largely pro-American, the creation of pro-democracy blogospheres in places like Syria could do much to encourage reform movements. Eventually, such movements would significantly increase the pressure for change on authoritarian regimes like that of Bashar Assad, giving the US government more options in its statecraft.

Although creating a community of bloggers depends on improving lagging access to the Web in nondemocratic states, the availability of the Internet in even the poorest and most closed countries is growing rapidly. The number of Internet users in the Middle East increased 219 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the advisory commission's report.

If the US government is to harness the Internet to spread liberty, State Department officials will have to rethink their whole approach to public diplomacy. Whereas the Internet is, by its very architecture, decentralized, messy, and chaotic, the government's initial attempts to revamp public diplomacy after Sept. 11, 2001, drew on the slick, prepackaged ethos of Madison Avenue. The first Bush appointee for the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, in fact, was a former advertising executive. Charlotte Beers, who was sworn in to that position just weeks after 9/11, had been CEO of two of the world's largest advertising agencies. Among the public diplomacy campaigns Beers reportedly considered were advertising spots in which celebrities would talk up the United States to Arab audiences.

Beers lasted just eight months, and the Madison Avenue approach to public diplomacy appears to have fallen out of favor in the State Department. However, if US officials have conceived of an approach that can overcome foreign skepticism about American ''propaganda" while still aggressively fighting the battle of ideas that is critical to creating a freer, more open world, they have not publicized it.

The advantage of a public diplomacy that seeks to build indigenous communities of reform-minded bloggers is that no American bureaucrat needs to develop the correct tone for communicating American ideals. Instead, the message of liberty and democracy can be encouraged to spread from the very communities that public diplomacy campaigns are designed to reach in the first place.

Hampton Stephens, former managing editor of Inside the Air Force, is a graduate student at the Institute of World Politics. 

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