The Second Coming of Karen Hughes

Bush's propaganda czarina Karen Hughes -- her official jawbreaking title is
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- has had
her ups and downs since being sworn in her State Department position in
September 2005. When the long-time Bush confidante rejoined the
"mission-accomplished" team in her new international-image-polishing job
(she had been, among her previous capacities, a member of the secretive
White House Iraq Group that led our country into war), some public-diplomacy
veterans hoped that her close relationship with the President would make
"engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" (the
State Department's definition of public diplomacy) more successful than it
had been during our Commander in Chief's first term.

But Bush Kampaigner Karen's first public foray into world affairs -- her
infamous "listening tour" to the Middle East in the fall of 2005 -- was
ridiculed by both the US and international media as an illustration of her
ignorance (she disclosed, to an Egyptian opposition leader, that our
Constitution cites "one nation under God") and lack of cultural sensitivity
(she offended some Saudi women by reproaching them for not having the right
to drive). After that disastrous overseas venture, she seemed to keep a
lower profile, and by 2006 was practically off the media radar screen,
especially during the Second Lebanese War. When she did engage in rare (for
her official position) public events (many directed to American audiences to
show them how good we US citizens were because of our
compassionate-conservative aid to less fortunate foreigners) she was not
infrequently criticized, including by the right-wing media, which accused
her of being too accommodating to Muslim organizations like the Council on
American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Hurricane Season Again?

Surprise, surprise, but in recent weeks Hurricane Karen (is this still her
nickname in the White House, even after Katrina?) has reemerged in the
press, with considerable positive coverage, although some negative media
comments about her continue. The second act of this minor American life
began on July 15, with a sympathetic article on the Under Secretary by
Nicholas Kralev in The Washington Times. Kralev -- citing various sources
(including Hughes herself) -- said the Ambassador (yes, that is what ex-TV
reporter Karen is now, due to her current position) was more aware of the
nuances of US foreign policy, was strongly supportive of educational
exchanges, had incorporated public diplomacy into the "consciousness" of the
State Department, and was streamlining the bureaucracy "to handle public
diplomacy issues more efficiently." The article ended by citing Mark Helmke,
senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that "Hughes
is finally helping State get its act together on public diplomacy."

Not long after Kralev's piece, PR Week (July 23) ran
what-a-great-lady-she-is interview with Hughes during which she had an
opportunity to spew out Soviet-style statistics about her public- diplomacy
triumphs:

"For the first time, public diplomacy was recognized as a national security
priority, and we got $50 million in the emergency supplemental. ... [W]e were
able to show from our initial survey data that 87% of participants in our
programs have a better understanding of the United States and 73% have more
favorable attitudes toward our country as a result of their participation. ...
So we've really expanded our exchange programs. When I came, the year before
I arrived, we had 27,000 people participate. This year we'll have almost
40,000. And I'm working on a budget where we're hoping to [increase
participants] to more than 50,000. ... I've been an advocate for increasing
the public diplomacy budget, and it has increased substantially since I've
been here, from $677 million to $845 million..... Last year we issued a record
number of student visas, I think 591,000."

As the author of articles on the Bush administration's misuse of numbers, I
would welcome it for someone with access to the proper records to check on
the accuracy of these statistics.

More Praise for Ms. Hughes

And then came a don't-beat-up-on-Karen piece by the distinguished diplomat
William Rugh, who was ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador
to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995. Titled "Quiet progress in
public diplomacy," the article argues that
"Karen Hughes has been unfairly criticized," and ends with the following
panegyric:

"Having served as a diplomat abroad, I am convinced that the best way for
foreigners to acquire a sophisticated understanding of our society, culture
and policies is to come here and see America for themselves. ...

Ms. Hughes knows this, too. She has worked hard, and successfully, to expand
the exchanges of students and professionals that the State Department
sponsors. In only two years, she increased the number of participants in the
department's exchange programs from 27,000 to more than 38,000. She also
expanded English teaching programs abroad, a 'secret weapon' that carries
considerable American cultural content and helps foreigners understand us
better."

The Los Angeles Times, often critical of the Bush administration, has a kind
word to say about Hughes in its article "U.S. State Dept. Drafts Ozomatli
For Tour: The U.S. Sends The Antiwar L.A. Band On A Diplomatic Mission To
The Heart Of The Arab World" by Borzou Daragahi (August 1):

"During the Cold War, the State Department recruited jazz musicians as
cultural emissaries. ... Such cultural outreach faded over the decades but has
been revived in recent years by Karen Hughes, the U.S. undersecretary of
State for public diplomacy."

This article was followed by a posting (August 3) on the Public Diplomacy
Blog of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy by State Department intern
Caroline Walters, "Sports Diplomacy Is The New Comeback Kid," which
announces that:

"Now U.S. sports diplomacy is enjoying a comeback of its own. With strong
support from Under Secretary Karen Hughes, the Department of State's budget
for sports grants and sports programming has climbed from a lowly $600,000
to roughly $5 million in just five years."

Who's Against?

Who's against making public diplomacy a greater part of the State Department
agenda? Who's against educational, cultural, and sports exchanges?
Practically no one, either on the left or the right.
But let's get a couple of things straight:

--The "soft-power" programs Ms. Hughes claims credit for have existed for
decades. Whatever budgetary increases she has gotten for them are minimal,
even if you can trust her statistics. Just compare them with what the
Pentagon gets to pay for its 700 bases and 230 golf courses. (See John
Smart, "An empire can be terribly expensive," Helena Independent Record,
July 29)

--As Independent pollster Andrew Kohut repeatedly points out, it is Bush's
policies that have the most impact on what foreign publics think about the
United States. Ms. Hughes' efforts to cover up the fiasco of these
unilateral, aggressive policies -- despised by many abroad -- by proclaiming
the successes of "her" exchange and information programs do little to
improve America's global image or moral reputation.

--The Under Secretary often speaks of the importance of the "diplomacy of
deeds." And indeed, the deeds of this administration tell the world far more
about the current US administration than whatever public-diplomacy programs
spinstress Karen claims credit for. What are these deeds that now define
America to foreigners? A senseless war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib --
just to name a few of the Bush atrocities that appall -- and kill -- our
fellow human brings.

So why is Ms. Hughes reemerging now? I venture to say that her second coming
has little, if anything, to do with the outside world or communicating with
it, never a Bush priority. Rather, it's about the upcoming presidential
election, and Hughes' attempt to make her boss' failings abroad acceptable
to American voters at a time when the Iraq war has become increasingly
unpopular in the U.S. Never mind the recent Pew poll that shows, in Marie
Cocco's words in truthdig (July 3), that "[t]he world is pretty well
disgusted with us." After all, in the Bush biosphere his acolytes create
their own reality, and to them the rest of our small planet has never really
existed.