John Brown- The Huffington Post - Posted August 9, 2007 | 05:45 PM (EST)

Bush's propaganda czarina Karen Hughes -- her official jawbreaking title is Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- has had her ups and downs since being sworn in her State Department position in September 2005. When the long-time Bush confidante rejoined the "mission-accomplished" team in her new international-image-polishing job (she had been, among her previous capacities, a member of the secretive White House Iraq Group that led our country into war), some public-diplomacy veterans hoped that her close relationship with the President would make "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" (the State Department's definition of public diplomacy) more successful than it had been during our Commander in Chief's first term. But Bush Kampaigner Karen's first public foray into world affairs -- her infamous "listening tour" to the Middle East in the fall of 2005 -- was ridiculed by both the US and international media as an illustration of her ignorance (she disclosed, to an Egyptian opposition leader, that our Constitution cites "one nation under God") and lack of cultural sensitivity (she offended some Saudi women by reproaching them for not having the right to drive). After that disastrous overseas venture, she seemed to keep a lower profile, and by 2006 was practically off the media radar screen, especially during the Second Lebanese War. When she did engage in rare (for her official position) public events (many directed to American audiences to show them how good we US citizens were because of our compassionate-conservative aid to less fortunate foreigners) she was not infrequently criticized, including by the right-wing media, which accused her of being too accommodating to Muslim organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Hurricane Season Again?

Surprise, surprise, but in recent weeks Hurricane Karen (is this still her nickname in the White House, even after Katrina?) has reemerged in the press, with considerable positive coverage, although some negative media comments about her continue. The second act of this minor American life began on July 15, with a sympathetic article on the Under Secretary by Nicholas Kralev in The Washington Times. Kralev -- citing various sources (including Hughes herself) -- said the Ambassador (yes, that is what ex-TV reporter Karen is now, due to her current position) was more aware of the nuances of US foreign policy, was strongly supportive of educational exchanges, had incorporated public diplomacy into the "consciousness" of the State Department, and was streamlining the bureaucracy "to handle public diplomacy issues more efficiently." The article ended by citing Mark Helmke, senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that "Hughes is finally helping State get its act together on public diplomacy."

Not long after Kralev's piece, PR Week (July 23) ran what-a-great-lady-she-is interview with Hughes during which she had an opportunity to spew out Soviet-style statistics about her public- diplomacy triumphs:

"For the first time, public diplomacy was recognized as a national security priority, and we got $50 million in the emergency supplemental. ... [W]e were able to show from our initial survey data that 87% of participants in our programs have a better understanding of the United States and 73% have more favorable attitudes toward our country as a result of their participation. ... So we've really expanded our exchange programs. When I came, the year before I arrived, we had 27,000 people participate. This year we'll have almost 40,000. And I'm working on a budget where we're hoping to [increase participants] to more than 50,000. ... I've been an advocate for increasing the public diplomacy budget, and it has increased substantially since I've been here, from $677 million to $845 million..... Last year we issued a record number of student visas, I think 591,000."

As the author of articles on the Bush administration's misuse of numbers, I would welcome it for someone with access to the proper records to check on the accuracy of these statistics.

More Praise for Ms. Hughes

And then came a don't-beat-up-on-Karen piece by the distinguished diplomat William Rugh, who was ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995. Titled "Quiet progress in public diplomacy," the article argues that "Karen Hughes has been unfairly criticized," and ends with the following panegyric:

"Having served as a diplomat abroad, I am convinced that the best way for foreigners to acquire a sophisticated understanding of our society, culture and policies is to come here and see America for themselves. ...

Ms. Hughes knows this, too. She has worked hard, and successfully, to expand the exchanges of students and professionals that the State Department sponsors. In only two years, she increased the number of participants in the department's exchange programs from 27,000 to more than 38,000. She also expanded English teaching programs abroad, a 'secret weapon' that carries considerable American cultural content and helps foreigners understand us better."

The Los Angeles Times, often critical of the Bush administration, has a kind word to say about Hughes in its article "U.S. State Dept. Drafts Ozomatli For Tour: The U.S. Sends The Antiwar L.A. Band On A Diplomatic Mission To The Heart Of The Arab World" by Borzou Daragahi (August 1):

"During the Cold War, the State Department recruited jazz musicians as cultural emissaries. ... Such cultural outreach faded over the decades but has been revived in recent years by Karen Hughes, the U.S. undersecretary of State for public diplomacy."

This article was followed by a posting (August 3) on the Public Diplomacy Blog of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy by State Department intern Caroline Walters, "Sports Diplomacy Is The New Comeback Kid," which announces that:

"Now U.S. sports diplomacy is enjoying a comeback of its own. With strong support from Under Secretary Karen Hughes, the Department of State's budget for sports grants and sports programming has climbed from a lowly $600,000 to roughly $5 million in just five years."

Who's Against?

Who's against making public diplomacy a greater part of the State Department agenda? Who's against educational, cultural, and sports exchanges? Practically no one, either on the left or the right. But let's get a couple of things straight:

--The "soft-power" programs Ms. Hughes claims credit for have existed for decades. Whatever budgetary increases she has gotten for them are minimal, even if you can trust her statistics. Just compare them with what the Pentagon gets to pay for its 700 bases and 230 golf courses. (See John Smart, "An empire can be terribly expensive," Helena Independent Record, July 29)

--As Independent pollster Andrew Kohut repeatedly points out, it is Bush's policies that have the most impact on what foreign publics think about the United States. Ms. Hughes' efforts to cover up the fiasco of these unilateral, aggressive policies -- despised by many abroad -- by proclaiming the successes of "her" exchange and information programs do little to improve America's global image or moral reputation.

--The Under Secretary often speaks of the importance of the "diplomacy of deeds." And indeed, the deeds of this administration tell the world far more about the current US administration than whatever public-diplomacy programs spinstress Karen claims credit for. What are these deeds that now define America to foreigners? A senseless war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib -- just to name a few of the Bush atrocities that appall -- and kill -- our fellow human brings.

So why is Ms. Hughes reemerging now? I venture to say that her second coming has little, if anything, to do with the outside world or communicating with it, never a Bush priority. Rather, it's about the upcoming presidential election, and Hughes' attempt to make her boss' failings abroad acceptable to American voters at a time when the Iraq war has become increasingly unpopular in the U.S. Never mind the recent Pew poll that shows, in Marie Cocco's words in truthdig (July 3), that "[t]he world is pretty well disgusted with us." After all, in the Bush biosphere his acolytes create their own reality, and to them the rest of our small planet has never really existed.


John Brown is currently associated with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, where he has taught courses about public diplomacy. A consultant for the Library of Congress's "Open World" exchange program with the Russian Federation, he has written for The Washington Post, The Nation on line, TomPaine.com, The Moscow Times, and American Diplomacy.

Brown, who received a Ph.D. in Russian History from Princeton University in 1977, was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service from 1981 until March 10, 2003 and has served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. He is co-author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union: A Guide to Archival and Manuscript Materials in the United States. His other published writings include research on Russian history as well as articles in the Polish and Serbian press. He is currently writing a book on Propaganda and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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