War Stories

Heck of a Job, Hughsie

Karen Hughes throws in the towel.

Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes

And so Karen Hughes is leaving her post as “public diplomat” in much the same way she assumed it, with an air of farce and mystery.

The farcical qualities, in both phases, were up front for all to see. Her entrance two years ago, in a high-profile PR trip to the Middle East, was a jaw-dropping display of ignorance and malapropism that made her the laughing stock of the region. Her announced exit yesterday was marked by tributes to her alleged achievements that were simply surreal.

But it is the mysteries that are murkier. Why was Karen Hughes—this hard-headed but provincial Texan with no experience in foreign affairs and only a smattering of irrelevant Spanish—handed the job of repairing America’s image in the Muslim world? And, with just over a year to go in his presidency, why is this avid Bush loyalist leaving now?

This latter question is at least intriguing and perhaps ominous. Her move, I’m told, came as a complete surprise to her senior staff, some of whom had been assured only days earlier that she’d stick around till the end of the term. Her publicly stated reasons for departing are unpersuasive—a mix of the banal (she wants to spend more time with her husband) and the absurd (she’s accomplished everything she set out to do).

A long time ago, President Bush said, quite reasonably, that a government program should be judged by its results. By that measure, Hughes’ tenure as undersecretary of state for public affairs has been a bust.

The main purpose of public diplomacy is to foster a better understanding of America and to improve its image in the world. Yet since Hughes took the job, our image—already bleak—has deteriorated to new lows.

Hughes can hardly be blamed for this dreadful situation, any more than Bill Cosby could be blamed for the failure of New Coke. You can wrap swill in the grandest ad campaign, but no one with taste buds will be fooled. It’s the same with foreign policy: You can craft a fine message and recite it with a smile, but the reception will be determined by what a country does.

Since her disastrous trip, Hughes has kept a low profile and tried to fashion a finer message. She built up instant-response teams to counter the more outrageous slanders in the Arab media, and she hired more Arabic speakers to appear on Middle Eastern TV networks, including Al Jazeera. A year ago, when word got back that one of these speakers, Alberto Fernandez, had said that the United States was acting with “arrogance” in Iraq, Hughes came under pressure from certain quarters to fire him, but she resisted and kept him onboard.

More recently, she has started to send out guest speakers who are critical of U.S. policy—not radical (there will be no State Department-sponsored tours for Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore), but nonetheless critical. Recently, she sent the anti-war hip-hop band Ozomatli on a concert tour to the Middle East, where crowds greeted them with enthusiasm.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, when it was an independent entity, the U.S. Information Agency sent out critical speakers and exuberant jazz bands routinely. They drew a distinction between selling America and selling American policy. Selling America—its culture, its traditions of free speech and pluralism—was what “public diplomacy” was about. Selling American policy—that was just propaganda.

Public diplomacy in this sense was killed off in the 1990s by Jesse Helms, the right-wing Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, who slashed the USIA and diminished it into a PR wing of the State Department.

Hughes was starting to revive some of the old agency’s traditions. Nick Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and a close follower of Hughes’ tenure, says that she has rebuilt the institutions to the point where the next president—if he or she wanted to—could productively put them to use. “She’s laid the railroad tracks,” Cull said in a phone interview. Now what’s needed is a railroad—which is to say, a policy that’s worth putting on the tracks and a president to start the engine.

There is an old adage that Hughes seems to have started to take to heart about public diplomacy: Actions speak louder than words.

When she took that trip to the Middle East two years ago, besides making a fool of herself in public, she also listened to many people—officials and ordinary citizens—in private, and she came away realizing that helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do more to improve America’s image than any PR campaign.

She came back and told that to President Bush. He responded by referring in a few speeches to the need for a Palestinian state—but he never did anything diplomatically to help bring the state into being.

When a reporter recently asked how the Blackwater security firm’s shooting of Iraqi civilians would affect America’s image in the world, Hughes replied, “Negative events never help.”

That may be why Hughes decided to go home. The negative events were piling too high. There was nothing she could do. And while she might not have been the best choice or the most sophisticated strategist for the job, there was really nothing anyone in her position could do.

George W. Bush put Karen Hughes in the job because he thought it needed someone who could communicate the goodness of America, and Hughes had been his communications director. This was the same reason he’d originally hired Charlotte Beers, a savvy Madison Avenue ad executive—and, after Beers washed out, Margaret Tutwiler, who’d been James Baker’s hard-driving spokeswoman when Bush’s father was president.

Hughes initially embraced the job with relish, but she dived in way over her head. Some who know her say she eventually realized her inadequacy and altered her approach—away from being the public diplomat and toward building up the office.

It may be that, as she focused more on the substance and less on the flash, she realized that what she’d been asked to do simply couldn’t be done. If the measure of success was how well she was selling U.S. policy, she was failing because there was no good story to sell.