School of Media and Communication

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Q&A: Karen Hughes (2007)

Q&A: Karen Hughes
Bush diplomat hopes programs prevent further anti-Americanism from taking root.

By Tara Copp
Sunday, February 18, 2007

WASHINGTON - When Karen Hughes traveled to Mexico last week, she took a mini-digital camcorder with her to post videos of the trip.

These days, even the U.S. State Department is blogging.

Hughes' video blogs are one way the State Department seeks to improve America's image overseas. It's an acknowledgement that while terrorism materializes in violent attacks, it's rooted in anti-American ideas and perceptions. The department is trying to challenge those ideas before they take root.

It's why Hughes, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, hired a half-dozen Arabic speakers to surf international blogs and post messages that counter "propa- ganda and rumors with facts," she said.

It's also why her office loaned the latest crop of State Department exchange students mini-camcorders. The students recorded their American experiences and will post the videos to YouTube.

"There's an information explosion, and we're competing for attention and credibility in the midst of that explosion," Hughes said.

President Bush asked Hughes, one his closest advisers before she decided to return to Austin in 2002, to come back to Washington 18 months ago to help revive a national image battered by the Iraq war. The Middle East is a huge part of her portfolio.

But Hughes must also keep an eye on "every country where we have diplomatic relations. And even countries we don't, like Cuba and Iran."

Hughes has taken a three-pronged approach: media outreach, exchange and education programs, and what she calls the "diplomacy of deeds" - public service campaigns.

Each program has focused on young people.

That's where she thinks that the United States has the best chance in preventing further anti-Americanism from taking root.

Hughes recently visited China and watched Chinese and American students hold a classroom discussion on Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

She's gone to the Philippines to distribute sewing machines to small businesses and to work with young girls on computers.

She's launching summer camps for Morocco's inner city youth, to get them out of slums and into the "beauty of their own country."

"I believe it is vital to our national security," Hughes said. "We are never going to win the war against terror in the long run as long as little boys and little girls around the world grow up hating or being taught to hate America."

The American-Statesman sat down with Hughes to ask her how she'll define success when she comes home to Austin after Bush leaves office.

American-Statesman:On Iraq, people really want to know what are we doing to improve the situation. In your mind, what can be accomplished before the administration's term ends?

Karen Hughes: I view my job as outreach.

I've been to many, many Islamic countries - I've been to almost three dozen countries now. What public diplomacy does, it's really people programs. It's exchange programs; it's cultural programs.

We've done some cultural preservation work in Iraq, for example, to show our commitment to their heritage and history and preservation of it.

We're (also) trying to do people-to-people exchanges with Iran, even though we don't have relations with their government.

We just took the U.S. wrestling team to Tehran and we brought our first groups of exchange participants over to America from Iran. We're going to be doing more of that this year.

So I'm particularly focused on . . . trying to put in place things for the long run.

Are there any parts of the strategy that deal with the sectarian differences in Iraq?

We have a very significant exchange program with Iraq.

And we work to bring people of all different sects, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, on that exchange program. I just met this week with two women from Iraq and the ambassador. And they're working to try and build civil society in Iraq.

We have a lot of different programs. These women are working to provide support and counseling for fellow women, many of whom have lost family members and obviously are dealing with the fear of living amidst this violence. We've got a lot of young (Iraqi) leaders coming over here. . . .

(Hughes wrote in a later, separate e-mail that the State Department has "also given small grants to programs aimed at bridging (sectarian) divides, including programs which promote religious tolerance and political plural- ism."

"We are continuing to work to reach out to people and try to build bridges across sectarian lines," she said.)

I'm absolutely convinced our exchange programs have been the most important public diplomacy tool of the last 50 years.

We can measure it; we can interview people. We know that when they come here and see America for themselves, they all say the same thing - they say their lives are forever changed.

And their views of our country are changed.

We are working to make our exchanges more strategic. We're inviting more people who have wide circles of influence - clerics - we've brought clerics over from Jordan and from Saudi Arabia, and teachers, journalists - because again the media has such an impact.

Is TV still the main outreach? Even beyond the Internet?

We just a few weeks ago, for the first time, engaged in Arabic on blogs. We have what's called here a "digital outreach team" . . . that is actively going on the Arabic blogs and responding to misinformation and disinformation and propaganda and rumors with facts. And we're very above board that it's the digital outreach team of the State Department.

How many people are on the team?

I think it's about four or five, and they're supervised by a foreign service officer. And they are all Arabic speakers that do that. Then we have one young man in the rapid response center who goes on the Web sites and monitors and watches and surfs. . . .

You asked me about measuring success. I saw a proverb . . . that talked about "planting a tree under whose shade you would not sit." In many ways, I feel like that's what I'm doing. Most of my work, public diplomacy work, is really long-term work.; (202) 887-8329

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