The Propaganda Czar from Paris + Texas

'I understand that Karen Hughes was born in Paris.'
--John Kerry, 2004

The good news is that at least it's not Karen Ryan reporting. The Paris-born former Texas reporter Karen Hughes is about to report for duty once again in Washington. After leaving the president's side full-time in 2002 for Texas to devote more time to family (her son was said to either hate Washington or miss Texas), Hughes is now being tapped to combat anti-Americanism in the Middle East and wherever else it might rear its ugly head. Karen Hughes will be the most high profile undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs since Charlotte Beers vacated that position two years ago right before the first shock-and-awe air strikes in Baghdad. Margaret Tutwiler, the James Baker protege and former Ambassador to Morocco, spent less than nine months in that capacity before jumping the ship of state for the New York Stock Exchange. Now Hughes gets the job that everyone agrees is exceedingly necessary but altogether practically impossible given the ongoing credibility problems of the United States and its position of numero uno brand nation.

Hughes is not known for her foreign policy prowess but for guard-dog like devotion to President George W. Bush. While a professor at New England College, I was within a ten foot pole from her in Concord, New Hampshire in 2000 when Bush was campaigning in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. She made a strong impression that I just might be zapped into vapor if I got too close to then Governor Bush when Hughes was around as his unofficial governor-in-chief bodyguard. Luckily I kept my distance and remain intact today. She was certainly good at protecting Bush far from the madding crowds, a tactic that failed to win the hearts and minds of many New Hampshire voters as we mass exited for John McCain's straight talk and open door Town Hall policy. With some irony, Hughes will be tasked now with promoting a more open dialogue between our nation and overseas publics. Let's hope she uses a softer touch this time.

Shortly after 9/11, Hughes did earn her information warfare stripes while heading the White House day-to-day duties of the Coalition Information Centers (CIC) that coordinated the message of the day from London to Washington to Islamabad during the bombing raids over Afghanistan. She was identified then as one of the main players in what the New York Times called the largest communications war effort since World War II.

Now the Times reports that "her main responsibility will be to repair the image of the United States which was badly tarnished abroad by anger over the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and overthrow its government. She will be responsible for improving U.S. diplomats' face-to-face contact overseas and will oversee an array of programs, such as radio broadcasts that place American ideas and news before foreign audiences." In this capacity, she will enjoy something that few, outside A-list celebrities, will ever experience--complete access to the upper echelons of power. She certainly has the heart and mind of both secretary of state and president, a position that may very well allow her free reign to rev up some bold new initiatives in public diplomacy that we could surely use. But it is this access to Washington groupthink that is exactly what may hurt that overseas effort.

American public diplomacy is presently very much an insider's and owner's box seat game where the rest of us serve as passive observers to the process, much like those targeted audiences who are presumed to shift their attitudes and opinions after marinating in pop music and low intensity news. While Karen Hughes will bring much-needed F.O.G. (Friend of George) status to the public diplomacy process, as such a strong insider she may become susceptible to the programs already in place that have been politically popular in Washington but not definitively successful overseas. There are some heated discussions right now about the success or not of two international broadcasting initiatives, Radio Sawa ('together') and Al Hurra ('the free one'), post-9/11 radio and television networks designed to combat hate media and Al Jazeera's influence. The consensus among leading Arab intellectuals and journalists (and not just Arab government-controlled media), is that both Sawa and Hurra have met tepid audience response. This is not a consensus projected by the politically-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees all U.S. Government international broadcasting. (For a discussion, listen to the March 11, 2005 edition of On the Media, "Persian Persuasion.")

Although audience surveys do suggest that people have listened and tuned in to Radio Sawa and Al Hurra occasionally, there is yet any solid evidence that these programs are working to convert anyone to an American point of view, whatever that might be. A 2003 GAO report documented the failings of the U.S. government to come up with any measurable indicators that could prove success. Last fall a news leak to the Washington Post said that data were available that Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are, like Radio and TV Marti, more boondoggle than bonanza. This report has not been released to the public and may never be. Now we must wait for another inquiry by the Congressional investigating service, General Accounting Office.

I welcome the appointment of Karen Hughes because she will bring so much hot talk and public scrutiny from what had become a moribund conversation about why they hate us. That is so 2001. In 2005, the Bush Administration is claiming democracy victory at every turn in the Middle East as it still puzzles over why the world doesn't embrace our marketed version. Now we'll get to conduct our own market watch as Karen Hughes gets to sweat out the complexity and paradoxes associated with re-branding America.

Not since the colorful Charlotte Beers have I had so much fun poking around from my perch in the pale ivory tower, but as I learned on the steps of the State Capitol in New Hampshire, I'll try not to get too close. For us media and propaganda monitors, this one is worth a good scrutiny, even from a respectable distance.

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