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Karen Hughes' Two-Year Halloween

by Rami G. Khouri

I could not help but notice that Karen Hughes announced her resignation as US public diplomacy chief Wednesday on Halloween day here in the United States. This was an apt moment for her to hit the airwaves - when monsters, ghosts, goblins and witches roam the land for the night, then disappear for another year, all in a make-believe fantasy land that enchants us briefly, and frightens us occasionally, but that we never take seriously.

Her resignation has been greeted in the American press as reflecting mixed results in her two years as undersecretary of state for oublic diplomacy - with progress on institutionally raising the profile of her office in Washington, but no real achievements in improving America's image abroad. That is too kind, in my view, and misses the point of her professional and official calamity.

From the start, Karen Hughes' office and mission - not her personally - were a political catastrophe in all respects. She should not simply resign. If she were a real diplomat and a true American, with honesty and courage to match her Texan bravado, she should apologize for subjecting her own country, and we who were the objects of her mission, to what can only be described as a monumental and insulting hoax.

She will not apologize, of course. So the next best thing is for those whom she leaves behind in Washington - a credibility-shattered and intellectually depleted bureaucracy - to undertake the patriotic mission that she always refused to do: to analyze honestly why the United States is universally criticized and increasingly widely feared as a dangerous menace around the world, and to determine what can be done to turn this situation arouned by adopting better policies, rather than subjecting the world to deceitful political hucksters and naive storytellers.

Her office had no appreciable impact on improving global perceptions of the United States, and in some situations made things worse, especially when she and some of her colleagues spoke to audiences in the Middle East with a combination of political condescension, cultural arrogance, and aggressive moralizing. I had the chance to see her perform in person a few times, and it was always a painful experience. Those left behind in her wake should analyze the last two years honestly, and come up with policies and strategies that shed the sort of racism, fantasy communication and self-delusional political and moral evasion of responsibility that the hapless Hughes and her colleagues practiced with a gusto that was matched by their obvious irrelevance and failure.

I am harsh on her and her work because it reflects the absolute worst in American political culture and America's engagement with the world. What she has done in her two years as public diplomacy chief is not only ineffective and probably counter-productive; it is also very un-American. She rejected the honesty, humility and realism that define the values of most Americans, and instead opted to live in a dream world in which America was perfect, and foreigners who thought badly of it needed to be lectured about American values and policies.

The core, devastating flaw in her entire mission was to completely separate the world's critical views of the US government from the conduct of American foreign policy itself. She assumed that the problem was that foreigners misunderstood American values or foreign policy goals - but she never tried to understand Arab-Muslims in the same way she asked them to understand her country and its policies.

She never understood that her brand of moralizing and arrogant cultural cheerleading - "Go, Muslims, go! Reach for the sky! You can be modern and democratic, if you really try!" - was part of the problem, not part of the solution. She failed to grasp that she was handicapped from the start by trying to make us love a country whose pro-Israeli, pro-Arab autocrats foreign policy - and now the Iraq fiasco - has devastated our lands and cultures for nearly half a century.

By any standards, she failed miserably and totally - but to be fair to her, she never really had a chance, given the enormous handicap of her country's foreign policy in the Middle East. We should criticize her personally only for accepting to be part of this charade, and playing the fool on a global stage that increasingly came to see her as a strange combination of a comedy and horror show rolled into one.

We should instead remind Americans that this is a moment for them to reconsider this whole silly episode, stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on vacuous public diplomacy programs, and stop insulting several billion people around the world who do not need any prompting to enjoy American values, education, business, technology, sports, and other offerings - including Halloween night, with its bags of Tootsie-Rolls, and the fantasy of defeated wicked witches who get on their brooms and disappear into the night sky, to reappear only in our future nightmares.

-- Rami G. Khouri

Copyright © 2007, The Daily Star

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