One needn’t be a seer to know that Karen Hughes’ diplomatic mission is an absurd waste of taxpayer dollars and yet further proof of our diplomatic ineptitude. Fred Kaplan delivers the goods.
It was strange enough when her longtime friend President George W. Bush named her as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. It’s absolutely mind-numbing to discover that she considers it one of her mandates to be the public diplomat.
The main task of this posting is to improve America’s image in the Muslim world. Let us stipulate for a moment that Hughes is ideally suited for the job—that she can figure out how to spin sheiks, imams, and “the Arab street” as agilely as she spun the White House press corps in her days as Bush’s communications director.
Even if that were so, why would anybody assume that she is the one to do the face-to-face spinning? Wouldn’t it be better to find someone who—oh, I don’t know—speaks the language, knows the culture, lived there for a while, was maybe born there?
Put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans’ image of Islam. It’s doubtful that he would send as his emissary a woman in a black chador who had spent no time in the United States, possessed no knowledge of our history or movies or pop music, and spoke no English beyond a heavily accented “Good morning.” Yet this would be the clueless counterpart to Karen Hughes, with her lame attempts at bonding (“I’m a working mom”) and her tin-eared assurances that President Bush is a man of God (you can almost hear the Muslim women thinking, “Yes, we know, that’s why he’s relaunched the Crusades”).
Hughes is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this admittedly daunting position since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And she’s the third piece of living evidence that he has no idea what “public diplomacy” requires.
I could have told you that. Hughes has done the worst thing for public relations, giving all of us practitioners a bad name (“liar”). That of all the qualified people she was the one chosen to walk the streets trying to generate good will in the Middle East speaks volumes. Your tax dollars at work.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.