Karen Hughes and public diplomacy

Amidst a shifting of political tectonic plates in the Middle East and major media thinking aloud 'Could Bush have been right?',  Karen Hughes has been nominated for the post of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy with the rank of ambassador.  As such, she faces a situation fraught with problems and promise.

In the wake of 9/11, public diplomacy has been a much discussed and debated topic. Some of the debate centers on the very nature of 'public diplomacy.'  Is it red, white and blue propaganda?  Is it appealing messages about 'we're really good people just like you?'  Is it civics class boilerplate?  Or is it simply making sure that a fair and balanced picture of America is broadcast to an Arab audience on a regular basis?  Congressional committees and blue ribbon panels have wrestled with these issues.

One of those panels, headed by veteran Middle East diplomat Edward
Djeredjian, argued that even those in the region who appreciate American values will never be persuaded by words unless and until the U.S. acts 'justly' (in their view) regarding the Israeli—Palestinian issue.

Margaret Tutwiler, who held the public diplomacy post last year, told a Congressional committee in February that

'We need to continue to focus and deliver meaningful programs and activities to those areas of the world where there has been a deterioration in the view of our nation.' 

Congressman Chris Shays opined that such efforts must be aimed at 'persuading Iraqis and their neighbors that we are there as liberators, not occupiers.'  Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors told the committee that new programs such as Radio Sawa (in Arabic)) and Radio Farda (for Iran) have been effective.

Since then, a number of programs and initiatives have been launched. The Voice of America has a Muslim Outreach Program.  The U.S. Middle East Television Network, or Al Hurrah, is now broadcasting 24/7 to millions of people in 22 countries.  The Intelligence Reform Act signed by President Bush in December calls for grants to US—sponsored schools in the Middle East. The State Dept. will recruit more public diplomacy specialists.  The National Endowment for Democracy will train journalists and promote free and open media efforts in Middle Eastern countries and 'societies in transition.'  Attention should be paid to the bloggers, with wide—ranging opinions, who are proliferating in the region.

It was only a month after 9/11 that fellow Texan Charlotte Beers took the job Karen Hughes will assume.  In an April 2002 webcast, the brilliantly successful advertising executive talked about the challenges she faced and acknowledged the contributions of Karen Hughes, who set up what she described as 'a rolling news cycle in Islamabad and the U.K., which joined in as a partner to the United States so we could build a rapid response team. (to terrorist propaganda)'  She credited Hughes with recognizing the plight of Afghan women as a powerful informational tool.  Then Mrs. Beers talked about her mission:

'What I'm trying to bring, to all the communications that we put on the table every day, is the need to understand who we are talking to... we also need to be able to talk with emotion, not just 'scrubbed—up' government speak; and... to show the full face of the United States.' 

The job was indeed challenging:

'We set up a 24/7 group who do nothing but screen everything that's come out while we were sleeping, translate it from 30 languages, put it on the table in the morning and start responding to the latest events and issues... a harmful lie, a rumor, of which there are many, can travel so fast that you find yourself trying to catch up with events.'

Charlotte Beers was awarded the State Department's highest medal for service after resigning in March 2003 for 'health reasons.'   That was the official explanation.  But from the beginning, she was assailed by a carping critical cadre of media hounds and beltway politicos. 

This begs the question:  how effective can public diplomacy be if the American image Karen Hughes will be promoting abroad is attacked and derided by virulently adversarial domestic media and politicians?  Does she need to establish an outreach program to convert these arrogant poltroons; to convince them that this republic is indeed the embodiment of liberty and freedom?

The problems are self—evident, but so is the promise.  With President Bush in the vanguard as Communicator—in—Chief, and events in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East resonating with democracy, an attuned Karen Hughes ought to be able to orchestrate a powerfully persuasive public diplomacy message.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.