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Morality Mission: How Karen Hughes Sees Her Job
Published on Wednesday, November 23, 2005 by
Morality Mission: How Karen Hughes Sees Her Job
by John Brown

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 definitions."

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


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