As Karen Hughes goes about her urgent job of trying to repair America's disastrously debased image throughout the world - especially the Muslim world - she is being undercut by what has become her mission's worst nightmare.
The vice president's steely hand and hard-line handiwork are making it impossible for the Bush-Cheney administration's undersecretary of state for public diplomacy to succeed in her prime mission - winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. It happens, of course, mainly behind closed doors in the West Wing, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
The latest is something that once would have been unthinkable as a policy of the United States: The officially sanctioned abuse and inhumane treatment of some prisoners or suspects in the war on terror.
Cheney mounted a major effort to defeat an amendment to the defense spending bill that merely adopted as U.S. policy the standard Geneva Convention language prohibiting the treatment of terrorist prisoners or suspects in "cruel," "humiliating" and "degrading" ways. The amendment was introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy hero in the Vietnam War who was among the many Americans who were beaten, abused and tortured as prisoners of war.
After the Senate adopted the amendment by a vote of 90-9, Cheney began urging Republican senators to at least add a loophole that would exempt operatives of the CIA from that policy. In other words, America's veep would have America tell the world that it is OK for certain U.S. personnel to treat prisoners and suspects in ways that are "cruel," "humiliating" and "degrading" - as long as the U.S. personnel draw paychecks from the appropriate pocket of the U.S. bureaucracy. In this case, the CIA.
It is enough to sadden the hearts and boggle the minds of Americans who remember when the world recoiled at horrific tales of Japanese and German torture of prisoners in World War II - and North Vietnamese abuses of U.S. captives (including McCain) in the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
That is why prominent Republican senators recoiled from Cheney's effort. House Republican leaders bowed to the veep, delaying a vote on the bill, but advised the measure is likely to pass.
Now think about the hearts and minds in the Arab world and the effect Cheney's policy will have on them. One day, Muslims see pictures of inhumane abuse by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib and accounts of abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Next, they hear Bush officials assuring that torture and abuse is not U.S. policy. Now comes pleading for a loophole that can only mean it is policy.
Which brings us to Karen Hughes. Before President Bush asked his close confidant to return from the private sector to take the job, a Government Accountability Office report had warned that "recent polling data show that anti-Americanism is spreading and deepening around the world. ... Such anti-American sentiments can increase foreign public support for terrorism directed at Americans, impact the cost and effectiveness of military operations, weaken the United States' ability to align with other nations in pursuit of common policy objectives, and dampen foreign publics' enthusiasm for U.S. business services and products."
No wonder a prominent administration figure promptly hailed Hughes' appointment by noting that public diplomacy "has been a very weak part of our arsenal ... (but) having Karen Hughes over there ... gives us the best combination of people (to) actively and aggressively address those issues." That designated hailer-in-chief was Cheney.
This just in: The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Army field manual has been revised to tighten controls over the questioning of suspected terrorists. But not all is clear. The new manual says CIA interrogators will follow Pentagon guidelines in interrogating "military prisoners." But the Bush administration also maintains that terrorist suspects are not military prisoners.
On Monday, Bush issued a ringing declaration: "We do not torture." It was followed by a wiggling explanation: "Our country is at war and our government has the obligation to protect the American people. Anything we do to that end, in that effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law."
Meanwhile, Cheney is keeping his hard-line hand in it, struggling to bend the law and the definitions just enough to give CIA operatives room to do their unspoken, undefined thing. If Cheney succeeds, there will be pictures of those unspoken/undefined acts and the revelations will rocket around the world and be recycled 24/7 on Arab television.
Which is to say that if Cheney succeeds, Hughes fails. And America will be forever enshrined in the worst of all ways within millions of hearts and minds around the world.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
© 2005 Capital Times