Sinking in the Polls: Karen Hughes' Public Diplomacy Moment

"Osama dyes his hair and nobody likes him -- what is this, grade six?" -Blogger byoolin

Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's longtime confidante and spin-stress, is one of his few loyal creatures left on the sinking USS Dubya. Unlike other White House cronies, Ms. Hughes refuses to fade away -- at least for now -- into the private-sector sunset, trying as best she can to stay in the Beltway limelight.

Her most recent effort to bring positive attention to her much criticized performance as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs appeared in her article in the Washington Post, "Sinking in the Polls" (September 17).

One cannot resist asking: in choosing the title for her piece, was Ms. Hughes inadvertently thinking about her boss' low performance ratings among her fellow Americans? Perhaps she was, subconsciously, but the main point of her op-ed was far more upbeat: America's Public Diplomacy Moment -- let's define it as when citizens of other countries are willing to listen to, and have a dialogue with, the U.S. -- has finally arrived. Or has it?

Public diplomacy -- programs "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences," to quote the State Department homepage -- can now have a greater impact than before because the world's view of bin Laden "is turning darker than [his] newly dyed beard," according to the Under Secretary. This "drop in support for violent extremists," she says, "presents an opportunity to expand our efforts to nurture common interests with people overseas and work with them to counter al-Quaeda's attempts to radicalize young people."

"English-language teaching, educational exchanges, music and sports diplomacy," Ms. Hughes notes (without mentioning crucial information programs such as international broadcasting), now face fewer obstacles in creating "more positive views of our country," given the evaporating attraction of bin Laden's terror message throughout the world.

Ms. Hughes cites the Pew Global Attitudes Project as her source for the growing disapproval of bin Laden, so her contention about terrorism's declining appeal is hard to refute.

Her article, however, not only fails to document what (if anything) her public diplomacy programs have done to lessen bin Laden's influence, but overlooks another key point: lack of support for bin Laden does not necessarily translate into approval overseas for Mr. Bush's foreign policy (and public diplomacy is, after all, an instrument and reflection of policy).

An alert reader of the Washington Post, Robert Anton Mertz of Bethesda, had this pearl of wisdom about Ms. Hughes (letter to the editor, September 22):

Karen P. Hughes ["Sinking in the Polls," op-ed, Sept. 17] ... barely mentioned that the formerly positive view of America held by an overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East has dropped precipitously.

In Turkey, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, those with a favorable view of America dropped from 52 percent of residents surveyed in 2002 to 9 percent of those surveyed today. In large part this is due to hostility to U.S. foreign policies in the region, but it is also due to the ineptitude of public diplomacy under Hughes' leadership at the State Department.

Not loving bin Laden and terrorism, in other words, does not automatically mean loving George W. Bush and his policies. So, Ms. Hughes' public diplomacy programs -- some of which, created decades before she was under secretary, certainly can contribute to better US relations with the rest of the world in the right conditions -- continue to face great difficulties in their implementation and effectiveness, due to their inevitable association with an administration criticized and hated the world over for the barbaric havoc it has been unleashing overseas for years.

Bin Laden may be a declining problem for American public diplomacy, but the president's actions abroad continue to be a major one, if not the major one.

What steps has Ms. Hughes (or Secretary of State Rice, for that matter) taken to change the president's foreign policy, so harmful to is public diplomacy, in a substantive way? (Hughes' omission of information programs in her article suggests that her public diplomacy has, in fact, essentially given up on efforts to explain or even describe this policy). We are still in Iraq, Guantanamo remains open, the Middle East continues to be in a state a turmoil because the administration is unable (or unwilling) to work on a peaceful solution to its problems.

No wonder Ms. Hughes' public diplomacy -- even if it includes, in her words, "teach[ing] English to thousands of young people in more than 40 majority-Muslim countries" -- is indeed marked by a basic ineptitude: its failure to change (or even explain) policies that mock and disregard the rest of the world.

An American Public Diplomacy Moment may never occur, given the enormous damage done to the US reputation by the administration Under Secretary Hughes serves. But this much-needed moment could come -- let us hope -- with a new president in the White House who has the ability to show, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review," available free by requesting it at