School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


A Failed Public Diplomat by John Brown

A Failed Public Diplomat
John Brown
October 06, 2005

Bush confidante Karen Hughes , the newly appointed, "relentlessly upbeat" Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, has returned from her recent five-day mission to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Marketed as a "listening tour," Hurricane Karen's foray into the volatile region turned into a near feeding frenzy directed at her by the western media, despite the State Department's best efforts to win over the press - which included providing seats to 16 reporters aboard the Under Secretary's Air Force jet.

Hughes's PR failure with her home media would be of little importance if it did not lead to a simple but troubling question: If the administration's Under Secretary in a key foreign policy post can't demonstrate to western reporters that she's a serious professional, how will she ever be able to convince the rest of the world, so doubtful about the Bush administration's intentions and actions, that her official assignment - winning hearts and minds abroad - is worth any attention or respect?

To be sure, not all "free world" journalists were critical of the Texan spinstress. Some members of the fourth estate even gave Hughes's Middle Eastern peregrinations subdued words of praise, among them that, according to neocon Max Boot , "Hughes has made a good step forward by engaging with more or less regular folks." And there was sympathy, best expressed by a Republican newspaper in Massachusetts: "No one could possibly do the job that Karen Hughes has been asked to do. Not even Karen Hughes."

These uncritical voices, however, were the exception. As her trip progressed, Hughes got more and more flak from the western media, from all sides of the political fence. To summarize this criticism, let's use Ms. Hughes's own "E" labeling for public diplomacy, in which she emphasizes her priorities: Education, Empowerment, Engagement and Exchanges. Here are the "Es" (better than "Fs"?) Kommunicator Karen got from our media:

Evangelical. Commentators were critical of Hughes's frequent references to religion. The most acid evaluation comes from Sidney Blumenthal who, in a piece for The Guardian headlined "U.S. Administration Lectures about God Delivered to Muslims Are a Dangerous Folly," contends that Hughes's "well-meaning arguments" about American religiosity "provided the exact proofs for Bin Laden's claims about American motives." "Her tin-eared assurances that President Bush is a man of God," writes Fred Kaplan in Slate, makes one "almost hear the Muslim women thinking, 'Yes, we know, that's why he's relaunched the Crusades.' "

Erroneous. The more Hughes spoke, the more mistakes journalists found in her statements. Calling her the American "minister of propaganda," Guy Dinsmore in The Financial Times notes that Hughes "repeatedly puzzled her audiences with her or the administration's own interpretation of history and current events." Among her false contentions: Bush was the first American president to state US support for an independent state of Palestine (actually, it was Clinton). Hughes's comment in Egypt that "our constitution cites 'one nation under God'" didn't shock the mainstream media, but an alert blogger was quick to point out: "Oh, it does? I wonder what section that's in," adding "If you're the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, shouldn't you know the basics?"

Evasive. In its editorial, "Policy Before PR ," the Los Angeles Times remarked that "audiences asked tough questions, and Hughes gave them non-answers," adding that "the office of public diplomacy is poorly defined, poorly organized and quite possibly unnecessary." USA Today pointed out that Hughes's interlocutors were carefully selected. "Her trip has been much like a political campaign: She delivers a message to select audiences."

Eccentric. Hughes, whose autobiographical Ten Minutes from Normal appeared some time ago, surprised journalists with her infatuation with being a mother. The invade-Iraq Weekly Standard , in its sarcastic "Karen of Arabia: I, Mom Meets The Imams," notes that Hughes "was relentlessly 'on message.' 'My most important job is mom,' she said. Even when she talked about Muslim religious leaders, instead of saying 'Imam,' she would say, 'I-mom.' All this 'I-mom' diplomacy left some people a bit mystified." Karen's "ya-gotta-love-me qualifications as a mom," "her lame attempts at bonding," were off-putting to the western media.

Egocentric. To at least one commentator, Hughes, by confusing her message with herself, comes off as egocentric. "Give Hughes credit," writes Bruce Reed in Slate , "for using her bully pulpit to stand up for the rights of women. But she should leave herself out of it. The job of persuading other countries to like America again is uphill enough without having to convince them to like Karen Hughes ."

Escapist. I tried to find an e-word for "parochial," the adjective used by Sidney Blumenthal to describe Hughes, and all I could come up with was "escapist," in the sense that Karen Hughes, as some media suggest, has permanently escaped into her narrow All-Republican Texas world and will never be mentally able to go outside the Bush Belt. "Hughes," writes USA Today , is "culturally insensitive." Fred Kaplanputs it this way :

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.

Hughes may be energetic, enthusiastic, enterprising, and empowered (she's empowered as an American woman because she drives a car, she said in Saudi Arabia, where female driving is banned, which led one Saudi lady to retort: "I go out with my driver.").

But is Hurricane Karen the right person for American public diplomacy? Our media are already telling us: No.

© Copyright Leeds 2014