Karen Hughes, Stay Home!

What on earth is she doing in the Middle East?

By Fred Kaplan

Posted Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005, at 1:27 PM PT

Could someone please explain to me what Karen Hughes is doing. Her maiden voyage to the Middle East has turned into a fiasco. She assures a room of Saudi women that they, too, will someday drive cars; they tell her they're actually happy right now, thank you. She meets with a group of Turkish women—hand-picked by an outfit that supports women running for political office—who brusquely tell her she has no credibility as long as U.S. troops occupy Iraq.

In a sense, this is par for the course when American officials meet with unofficial audiences abroad. But here's the puzzler: Why is it Karen Hughes who's taking these meetings? It was strange enough when her longtime friend President George W. Bush named her as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. It's absolutely mind-numbing to discover that she considers it one of her mandates to be the public diplomat.

The main task of this posting is to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Let us stipulate for a moment that Hughes is ideally suited for the job—that she can figure out how to spin sheiks, imams, and "the Arab street" as agilely as she spun the White House press corps in her days as Bush's communications director.

Even if that were so, why would anybody assume that she is the one to do the face-to-face spinning? Wouldn't it be better to find someone who—oh, I don't know—speaks the language, knows the culture, lived there for a while, was maybe born there?

Put the shoe on the other foot. Let's say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans' image of Islam. It's doubtful that he would send as his emissary a woman in a black chador who had spent no time in the United States, possessed no knowledge of our history or movies or pop music, and spoke no English beyond a heavily accented "Good morning." Yet this would be the clueless counterpart to Karen Hughes, with her lame attempts at bonding ("I'm a working mom") and her tin-eared assurances that President Bush is a man of God (you can almost hear the Muslim women thinking, "Yes, we know, that's why he's relaunched the Crusades").

Hughes is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this admittedly daunting position since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And she's the third piece of living evidence that he has no idea what "public diplomacy" requires.

His first pick was Charlotte Beers, a brilliant advertising executive—a reflection of the notion that all we needed to do was come up with a better slogan. Beers was driven out of town on a rail after preview audiences howled and jeered at a propaganda film she'd produced. Next up was Margaret Tutwiler, the hard-driving press spokeswoman for James Baker when he was secretary of state under Bush's father. She, too, came up zeros.

And now here is Hughes, once again a strong woman with no substantive experience on the subject, who was named to the job last March but put off coming to work so she could spend quality time with her son before he went off to college—a laudable priority for Hughes personally, but this indulgence by the president of the United States casts doubt on how urgently he regards the job's mission.

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a vast, independent public-diplomacy program in embassies all over the world—libraries, speakers' bureaus, concert tours by famous jazz musicians, and broadcasts of news and music on the Voice of America. Together, they conveyed an appealing image of a free, even boisterous, America in the face of an implacable, totalitarian Communist foe.

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes. But Karen Hughes would be spending her time more wisely trying to come up with some.

Perhaps the most effective personification of public diplomacy in recent times was Vladimir Posner, a Soviet newsman who in the early 1980s appeared frequently on Ted Koppel's Nightline to defend the invasion of Afghanistan. Posner was sophisticated, dapper, and spoke perfect, idiomatic, accent-free English. It turned out that he had been born and raised in the United States. His father was a Communist who immigrated to Moscow—taking along his family, including his teenage son—after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In short, Posner was the perfect man for the job.

So, that's another thing Karen Hughes should be doing—looking for the Muslim equivalent of our own Vladimir Posner.

But even smart public diplomacy can only go so far. When the Afghan invasion turned disastrous, Posner could not save it—or the Soviet Union. (By the way, he managed to rehabilitate himself nicely, emerging as a pro-reform TV game-show host in the Yeltsin era.) Similarly, when the Vietnam War came to dominate nearly everything about the world's perception of America, the USIA's cleverest image-molders could do nothing to stave off the damage.

To the extent that public diplomacy has worked at all, it has done so as a garnish. The main course—a nation's ultimate image—is fashioned not by how it talks but by what it does.