Published on Sunday, October 23, 2005 by the Guardian/UK
God, Iraq and the Power of the President's PR
The worrying rise and rise of Karen Hughes, George W Bush's 'ambassador for public diplomacy' and the woman behind the throne
by Mark Borkowski
Profound unpopularity, as tyrants, bullies and senior spin doctors know to their advantage, can be a powerful weapon in warfare. In any army the hardest things to instill in a new recruit are not how to drive a tank, fire a gun or march in step, but how to summon the mental strength to kill. Engendering hatred through indoctrination is a necessary part of getting wars up and running: hatred gives everyone involved something black and white to focus on.
So in theory, because 'we' hate Saddam Hussein, and Saddam and his friends hate us, the US can continue its extended excursion to the Middle East. With every GI blown up by 'insurgents' and sent home in a box, there's sufficient hatred about, coupled with a knee-jerk desire for revenge, to overcome and neuter the more logical, human and civilised reaction of 'Whoa! Enough! Let's get OUT of here!' One of the strands of Orwell's 1984 was that in a dehumanised society hatred naturally becomes state-sponsored.
It takes a special sort of PR to manoeuvre public opinion in such an arena, where the press and the enemy must seem at times to be one and the same. Only someone with blind faith, ultimate connections and unlimited resources would be able to pull it off, but even Karen Hughes must have been jolted to see herself compared on the internet to the master propagandist of the Nazi party, Josef Goebbels.
After all, isn't she just a country girl from Texas who used to be a TV reporter and then started doing a bit of PR for the Republican party? Since the 1990s Hughes has worked exclusively with George W. Bush, first as his Director of Communications while he was Governor of Texas, and then as Counsellor to the President when he got to the Oval Office.
Rumoured to have had enough of the back-biting which followed her zealous handling of 11 September, including the launch of the 'War on Terror', she scurried home to Texas in 2002, but remained in close contact, speaking to Bush several times a week. In the end he couldn't function without her and last March he appointed her Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, with the rank and powers of a full Ambassador.
She is, after all, his voice. She wrote his autobiography, vets everything he says and does in public, and 'enjoys the closest possible relationship with the Bush family'. She's been described by the Dallas Morning News as 'the most powerful woman ever to serve in the White House', which is the sort of comment her enemies have been quick to seize on to highlight her failings as a strategist (a Presbyterian elder, she once insisted on giving a sermon on Airforce One in place of the scheduled briefing).
Dismissed as a Bush cheerleader by the Democrat press and Washington's elite, Hughes now presides over a vast engine, the ultimate PR machine, the function of which is to make the world love America and all it stands for. 'Working through exchange programs, foreign language media and other initiatives, the public diplomacy campaign aims to promote American values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism abroad while combating negative images propagated in many parts of the world' claims the White House website.
The Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum is blunter: 'In plain English, her job is to fight anti-Americanism, promote American culture and above all to do intellectual battle with the ideology of radical Islam, a set of beliefs so powerful that they can persuade middle-class, second-generation British Muslims to blow themselves up on buses and trains.'
So she's working for us as well, is she? That's a trifle worrying because she demonstrates a worrying capacity to act the loose cannonball. Just three weeks ago in Saudi Arabia, on what was hyped as a 'listening trip', she effectively preached to a hall of veiled, local women that if they didn't like being banned from driving cars they should do something about it and secure themselves the freedoms women in the US take for granted.
This went down well with one audience - that immediately in front of her - and embarrassingly badly with the other, more distant and senior diplomatic one, who recognised that arrogant tendency to showcase their ignorance that everybody loathes about Americans abroad.
To anyone from this side of the Atlantic, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, the notion that we are represented diplomatically and publicly in the Middle East by an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy who's a Texan God-botherer and has presumably been responsible for Bush's many displays of crassness and illiteracy, is not good news. She managed to raise eyebrows and blood pressure readings with a remark comparing Osama Bin Laden's terrorists to the US pro-abortion lobby in their 'lack of respect for human life'.
Exactly how big Hughes's weapon of mass deception is, nobody really knows, but the US Department of Defence alone employs 7,000 'professional communicators', and it's recorded that the State Department spent $685 million on public diplomacy in 2004, with critics complaining that it hasn't been increased enough since 11 September and that little of it has targeted the Muslim world.
One thing we do know is that Hughes has at her disposal the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering capability ever assembled. With thousands employed in 'Information Operations' on the US government's behalf, using every conceivable ruse from satellite surveillance to leaflet dropping to finding out how much whisky President Putin gets through of a night, knowing what's really going on everywhere should be simple.
The question is, what are she and Bush going to do with all the information in the world if they can't see how things like Guantanamo Bay and the indefinite detention of hundreds of suspects, or the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib jail, contradict every platitude they spout?
And if they can't stop the rot? Worry not. 'IO' by now has the potential to step in with a much firmer, less 'Southern' grasp of precisely what to do and who to target when manipulating public opinion on a global scale. Now there's a thought.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005