The White House finally ended its boycott of Voice of America (VOA), the government’s own international broadcasting service, on Wednesday, hours before the President’s speech on U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Though every President since VOA’s creation in 1942 had appeared on air with VOA, Barack Obama had not; Obama preferred to reach the world via BBC World Service, Al-Arabaya, and others. Given the fact that the Administration has requested $767 million for international broadcasting, this omission was odd, to say the least.Not only that, but at White House briefings and especially prime time presidential news, VOA has been actually barred from asking any questions. Has the Obama Administration shunned VOA as a hold-over from the days of the Cold War? It almost appears that way.
After intensive appeals from VOA to new White House communications director Jay Carney, the White House relented, giving senior VOA correspondent Andre DeNesnera an exclusive interview in the White House map room. Though conducted in the afternoon of June 22, it was embargoed until the following morning.
In his first interview with VOA, President Obama repeated the main points of his address to the American people that the initial drawdown of 10,000 will strike the right balance, a substantial presence will remain to support the Afghan military, and our European allies have made an extraordinary contribution. While he did not use the phrase “mission accomplished,” the President said that we are “transitioning from a position of strength.”
Though the merit of the President’s decision can certainly be debated, it would be encouraging if the White House finally realized that it has a strategic asset in U.S. international broadcasting, which it will have to rely on increasingly if and when it starts withdrawing from Afghanistan. For instance, under the leadership of its director Beth Mendelson, the Afghan service of VOA has achieved a 65 percent audience share for its evening news broadcast.
Furthermore, incoming VOA director David Ensor’s last job was as director of communications and public diplomacy U.S. embassy in Kabul. He will understand better than most of official Washington the kinds of challenges and opportunities that continue to face both American troops and the Afghan people.