Since 2002, US communication-based foreign policies have resulted in the launch of two high-profile international broadcasting stations — Radio Sawa and al-Hurra television — as well as other failed ventures such as the 'Shared Values' documentary campaign and the Hi Arabic youth magazine. These policies have, at best, delivered mixed results as a form of public diplomacy for the United States. The principal objective of this article is to illuminate how governing beliefs about public diplomacy might have mitigated its success, by identifying the implicit policy imagination revealed in policy arguments. This article investigates the discursive imagination behind US international broadcasting programmes and how public debate outlines an 'argument formation' for US foreign-policy rhetoric. Three episodes of policy argument between 2001 and 2005 are assessed as demonstrative of a rhetorically constructed policy imagination that prompted a broadcasting strategy that was incompatible with the communicative norms of its targeted foreign audience.