The recently named Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public
Affairs, Bush confidante and long-time Presbyterian church Sunday school
teacher Karen Hughes, has an significant new foreign affairs position: "to
provide the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world." This phrase,
introduced not long ago on the State Department website in the section
dealing with Ms. Hughes's job, may bring Ms. Hughes closer to the
All-Mighty, with whom her boss, he often reminds us, is in frequent
communication. But Ms. Hughes's "moral leadership" function hardly furthers
American national interests. Indeed, it can make our public diplomacy all
the more ineffective by muddying our dialogue with other countries, and it
opens the U.S. to even more charges of hypocrisy.
In an effort to find out exactly when the "moral leadership" phrase was
added to the public diplomacy chief's job description, I queried the State
Department on several occasions. But I received no answer to my e-mails, and
my telephone calls, resulting in no solid information, were transferred from
one bureau to another, including to the "office of crisis management," where
a recording informed me "there is no activity at this time" (shades of FEMA
and Hurricane Katrina?).
Giving up on official channels at the Department, I got in touch with
members of the foreign affairs community regarding when the "moral
leadership" made its way on Foggy Bottom's website. One State Department
employee, whom I reached at his home e-mail address, says he and his
colleagues "all agree that the 'moral basis' argument is something quite
new." According to a former Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for
Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Ms. Hughes's predecessor,
marketing whiz Charlotte Beers, "this is indeed a new addition to prior
The phrase did appear on State's site "at least three months before Ms.
Hughes was appointed to the position of Under Secretary of State," according
to a foreign policy professional who teaches in Washington. But by keeping
the Under Secretary's "moral leadership" duties as part of her portfolio,
Ms. Hughes has clearly adopted them as her own.
Members of the foreign affairs community have expressed reservations about
the new language describing the Under Secretary's priorities. The most
generous remark, by a commentator on public diplomacy, was: "Let's hope it's
only a typo." "The [moral] definition," says a university professor who
specializes in public diplomacy, "projects arrogance, patronage and
selfishness. It seems that it has been designed to appeal to domestic rather
than foreign audiences." Hugh Burleson, a retired Foreign Service officer
(USIA), puts it this way:
"PD existing to provide a moral basis for US leadership ... is absolutely
wrong -- a narrow and distorted definition or mission statement. What would
it do for us when our policy is widely seen, even by friends, to be wrong
and even immoral? Public diplomacy should exist to make US policy and the
thinking and society behind it understandable to foreign audiences."
The strongest criticism of "moral leadership" comes from a current State
Department employee I contacted privately:
"This is yet another example of the spin-obsessed White House's infantile
declarativism -- i.e., if I state that something is true (and better yet,
keep repeating it), then it must be true ... our . Deputy Assistant
Secretaries (DAS's) [may] start coming up with exciting, new "moral basis" initiatives -- they're usually quite adept at calculating which way the wind
is (or should be) blowing."
Clearly, as foreign policy professionals suggest, Ms. Hughes's moral
approach is problematical if not counterproductive. First, with its preachy
attitude, it can interfere with public diplomacy's core function, as defined
by the State Department -- to engage, inform and influence key international
audiences. Second, it is self-defeating: How can a torture-based
administration that -- as is now widely acknowledged -- shamelessly misled
the U.S. into war thanks to the WHIG (White House Iraq Group, to which Ms.
Hughes belonged) have a credible right to claim "moral leadership"?
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles the "Public Diplomacy
Press Review," available free by e-mail by requesting it at