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December 19, 2007

Bush's New Spin Master
a Lame Duck?


by William Fisher

As Karen Hughes, the close confidante of President George W. Bush, gives up her mission to improve the U.S. image abroad – amid decidedly mixed reviews of her performance – her replacement is already facing criticism for his support of the Iraq war and a number of alleged ethical lapses.

Hughes, a key adviser to the president since his days as governor of Texas, resigned her post as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy last week after just under two years in the post to return to private life in Texas. President Bush has nominated James Glassman as her replacement.

Glassman is currently chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the organization responsible for conveying Washington's messages through television and radio to the Middle East, Iran, Cuba, and other areas of the world. Washington-watchers have speculated that Glassman was nominated because he had already been confirmed by the Senate for his BBG post.

Critics of Glassman, who is a staunch neoconservative, point to his early and enthusiastic support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In an article he wrote in 2003, Glassman said, "the antiwar protesters remain clueless. They're still planning their marches. Instead, they should be apologizing. Before the war, they told us that 500,000 Iraqis would be killed in Dresden-like bombing, that we would precipitate an eco-catastrophe by pushing Saddam to set fire to his oil wells, that millions of people would flee the country, that thousands of our own troops would be killed, that the Arab 'street' would rise up, that terrorist attacks would resume ferociously on our homeland, that Iraqis would tenaciously resist our colonization of their land, that we would become bogged down in urban warfare, and on and on."

Glassman continued, "In fact, none of that has happened. It has been a war unmatched in history, with relatively few civilian and allied casualties and the prime objectives – control of the capital and the destruction of Saddam's regime – achieved in only a few weeks. Conscientious opponents of the war should say they were wrong, wrong, wrong – on all counts."

A year later, after the Abu Ghraib detainee scandal hit the headlines, he wrote, "Recent events in Iraq, especially in Abu Ghraib prison, emphasize once more the dire need for serious, strategic, and properly funded public diplomacy – the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world."

Like Hughes, Glassman has little Middle East experience. He was a member of an advisory group on public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, chaired by former ambassador Edward Djerejian, who has been one of Hughes' supporters.

Hughes, who played a key role in crafting the pre-Iraq invasion "message" to U.S. voters, was a Texas television reporter before becoming one of Bush's most trusted advisers.

Glassman, a former syndicated columnist, is perhaps best known for his prediction that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would reach 36,000 during the last bull market. A resident fellow at the right-wing think-tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he is the founder and longtime"host" of Tech Central Station (TCS), an Internet opinion site published by the Republican firm the DCI Group. Sponsors of TCS include fast-food giant McDonald's and the oil company Exxon Mobil.

Glassman has been accused of a number of ethical breaches reportedly committed on behalf of the DCI Group. In 2006, St. Petersburg Times reporter Bill Adair revealed that Glassman had used TCS and his syndicated column to champion the interests of the Web site's corporate sponsors without disclosing these relationships.

Adair cited Glassman as one of those who profit from this practice. He noted that Glassman had denounced Super Size Me, a 2004 movie critical of McDonald's nutritional policies, but failed to disclose that "McDonald's is a major sponsor" of Glassman's Web site. The film said McDonald's was partly to blame for the nation's obesity epidemic.

Glassman takes on his new State Department post at time when most reliable polls are finding U.S. credibility abroad lower than it has ever been. He faces an overseas environment increasingly hostile to the U.S. due to such factors as the "marketing" of post 9/11 fear of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, failure to seriously address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals, and revelations of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, CIA renditions, and "black sites" where detainees become "ghost prisoners."

Samar Jarrah, a Florida-based Palestinian-American who is a radio talk show host and the author of Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts, summed up the feelings of many ordinary Middle Easterners.

"If the U.S. asks me to take Karen Hughes' or James Glassman's job tomorrow, I would fail too. What do I tell people in the Arab and Muslim world when they ask me, 'why did you go to war in Iraq knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction, no connection to 9/11, and did you have any plans for the day after?' Any attempt on my behalf to answer these questions truthfully will lead to my firing."

Jarrah added, "Karen and Jim assume that Arabs and Muslims do not read and do not have a clue. Can you imagine what my answers can be when I am asked about Israel, Iran, supporting torturous dictators in the Arab world? Anyone is doomed to fail. I bet you a million dollars that it is Karen who got a lesson or two from her job and this is why she quit. It is a dead-end job."

Hughes' departure as Washington's chief spokesperson abroad has been greeted with mixed assessments of her performance. While she successfully pushed for substantial budget increases, experts say there has been little substantive change, and few new ideas, in U.S. public diplomacy during her tenure. Her so-called "listening tours" of contentious areas, including the Middle East, have brought charges of "cultural insensitivity."

One assessment comes from Patricia H. Kushlis, a former career Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency from 1970-1998, and co-author, with Patricia Lee Sharpe and Cheryl R. Rofer, of WhirledView, a widely respected foreign affairs and public diplomacy blog.

On the positive side, Kushlis told IPS, "I think that Karen Hughes' basic accomplishment was remaining in office for more than a year. True, she increased the budgets for exchanges – particularly for bringing foreigners here – and restored portions of core public diplomacy functions, like media reaction or rapid response units, which had been allowed to lay fallow since the demise of USIA in 1999."

On the negative side, Kushlis told IPS that "Hughes apparently failed to recognize or act upon the central problem – a bifurcated and under-funded public diplomacy effort is an anemic approach to solving much more fundamental public diplomacy issues both in terms of policy and structure. Clearly, if Hughes did understand the problems she did not use her proximity to President Bush to initiate the fundamental structural changes that could and should have happened."

She added, "As for James Glassman's appointment to replace her, it seems to me that he will be a 'place holder' at best. It's far too late in this administration's day, even if its luster were still there, for Glassman or anyone else to accomplish much of anything – if indeed he has any interest in doing so."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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