The most intriguing aspect of U.S. President George W. Bush’s nomination of Karen Hughes to take charge of Washington’s public diplomacy apparatus–and particularly outreach to the Islamic world–is the building out of which she will be working. The decision to put Hughes, who, along with Karl Rove, has been Bush’s closest political adviser since he first ran for Texas governor in the early 1990s, under Condoleezza Rice at the State Department took insiders by surprise.
It suggested that Rice is building a major power center at Foggy Bottom, one that is capable of ensuring that she can penetrate the circle of foreign policy hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney and bolstered by national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and his deputy, J.D. Crouch, any time she wants.
“Cheney always got the last word (with Bush) on foreign policy if he wanted it,” said one State Department official who asked not to be identified. “If Hughes gets seriously involved, she can get it, and she’s one of the very few people who can actually deliver bad news to the president.”
While administration officials told reporters last week that Hughes was indeed returning to Washington after moving back to Austin, Texas, in 2002, so that her son could attend high school there, the assumption was that she would take back her old office at the White House, close to Bush himself.
And while the same sources said she would be working on international affairs, rather than just domestic matters, it still made sense that she would be based at the White House. After all, not only is the National Security Council based there, but two recent blue-ribbon commissions had also urged the administration to create a White House post for public diplomacy that would oversee and coordinate all related efforts throughout the government.
Ignoring these recommendations, however, Bush nonetheless agreed to place his most trusted adviser a mile away at the State Department, where she will be directly responsible not to him, but rather to Rice.
As described by Rice Monday, Hughes’ mandate will include implementing a major reform of Washington’s public-diplomacy work in addition to reaching out to the public of other nations, particularly in the Arab world, where Washington’s image, according to public-opinion surveys since Bush launched his “war on terror,” has fallen to all-time lows.
Rice also announced that Hughes’ deputy will be Dina Powell, a 31-year-old Egyptian-born Arabic speaker who, as a top White House recruitment officer, has also been a member of Bush’s inner circle over the past two years–in addition to having worked on Middle East outreach and democracy programs at the State Department under Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president’s daughter.
In her own remarks, Hughes–whose foreign outreach so far has been confined to promoting women’s programs in Afghanistan –also stressed the importance of better communication with Muslims.
“This job will be difficult. Perceptions do not change quickly or easily,” she said. “This is a struggle for ideas. Clearly, in the world after September 11th, we must do a better job of engaging with the Muslim world. As the 9/11 Commission reported, if the United States does not act aggressively to define itself, the extremists will gladly do the job for us.”
Hughes follows in the failed footsteps of two other very prominent women who were posted to the same job. After 9/11, former Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed Charlotte Beers, a legend on Madison Ave. who pioneered the advertising technique of “branding.” Beers, however, made a series of televised ads to promote Washington ‘s image in the Arab world that were deemed ineffective at best and finally left after two years for “personal reasons.”
Margaret Tutwiler, a top aide and spokesperson for former Secretary of State James Baker and a former ambassador to Morocco, succeeded Beers but quit after only one year, reportedly out of frustration with the lack of resources and the administration’s general failure to understand the basic problems faced by Washington in the Middle East. This had as much to do with U.S. policies as with general anti-Americanism.
“Tutwiler (and her interim successor, Pat Harrison) really did understand that Washington ‘s image problems in the Arab world were being driven by its policies and could not be addressed simply by sophisticated advertising and message-spinning,” said James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute. “But that was something the White House didn’t really want to hear.”
That was also the conclusions reached by two high-powered panels on public diplomacy over the past two years, which called on the administration both to sharply increase funding for public diplomacy efforts focused particularly on the Islamic world and to reject the comforting and oft-repeated neoconservative nostrum that many Muslims “hated” the U.S. for “who we are” rather than “what we do.”
“’Spin’ and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer,” according to an October 2003 report, Changing Minds, Winning Peace, by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James Baker Institute, whose principal author, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian, was present at Hughes’ nomination ceremony Monday. “Foreign policy counts.”
“Public opinion cannot be cavalierly dismissed,” the report said. “Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing, and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq .”
A second report released last fall by the Defense Science Board (DSB), which is made up of private-sector and academic experts appointed by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, reached a similar conclusion. It called on U.S. policymakers to spend more time “listening” to their intended audience and use messages that “should seek to reduce, not increase perceptions of arrogance, opportunism, and double standards (by the U.S. ).”
“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies,” the DSB wrote in a direct challenge to the administration’s own propaganda. “The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.”
Naturally, neither Rice nor Hughes alluded to these particular findings, although both stressed that Washington must indeed do a better job of listening, and Hughes, who stressed that she was born in Paris and lived in Canada and Panama, stressed that she had “learned firsthand that America’s policies can be interpreted differently in different places and from different perspectives.”
Zogby, who has advised several administrations on both policy and public diplomacy in the Arab world, hopes that such an appreciation may bring Hughes to the same understanding about the relationship between U.S. policy and image as reached by Tutwiler and Harrison, although he worries that she will adopt “what seems to be in vogue today–the explanation that (the Arabs) don’t really dislike us, they dislike their own governments, so if we advocate freedom, we’ll win” as the main message for Washington to crank out to the region.
If, on the other hand, she reaches a similar conclusion about policy issues as the DSB, in particular–and she is more likely to reach such a conclusion from her interaction with foreign service officers experienced in the Middle East than in the White House–“this could be a very important appointment.”
“Her ability to communicate with the president is very clear,” said Zogby. “She could make a huge difference.”
Jim Lobe is a regular contributor to the Right Web program of the International Relations Center (IRC), www.irc-online.org. He is the Washington correspondent for Inter Press Service.