The numbers are not good. By every conceivable
measure, the United States, which only six years ago was positively perceived
and admired by many people around the world, is now almost universally disliked
and frequently feared. The Pew Global Attitudes Project June 2006 polling reveals
that even among America's closest traditional allies in Europe, with the sole
exception of Britain, the U.S. is everywhere perceived unfavorably. Only 23
percent of Spaniards viewed the U.S. positively, while in key Muslim ally Turkey
only 12 percent did so. In every country polled by Pew save only Germany, U.S.
involvement in Iraq is seen as a greater threat to world peace than Iran's nuclear
program. A Zogby poll conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia,
and the United Arab Emirates last year revealed that only 12 percent of their
aggregate populations view the U.S. favorably. More disturbingly, polling data
from several sources is also indicating that many foreigners are beginning to
regard the American people, not just U.S. foreign policy, as a part of the problem.
And it's not only foreigners who perceive the Bush foreign policy in negative
terms. A poll conducted last month by Foreign Policy magazine queried
100 American experts on terrorism and international relations. Two thirds of
those polled said that the existence of a "central front in the war on terrorism"
located in Iraq is largely a fiction. Three quarters asserted that the U.S.
is losing the international struggle against terrorism and that American policy
is making the world a more dangerous place. When asked to pick the world's most
threatening government, 9 percent selected the United States, including 14 percent
of respondents who described themselves as "conservatives."
Those Americans who have watched with concern as the world's view of the United
States deteriorated dramatically over the past six years are becoming increasingly
convinced that the damage might be irreversible. A toxic brew of provincialism,
jingoism, and sheer ignorance has come together to shape the Bush White House's
outlook on the world, a view that is unfortunately shared by many in Congress.
There is a major disconnect in terms of Washington's purely Manichean view of
other countries and how the world looks at the U.S. in return. The "with us
or against us" divide has poisoned the waters and has rendered compromise on
many hitherto tractable issues nearly impossible. The United States is increasingly
seen as an unprincipled schoolyard bully driven by narrow self-interest whose
unpredictable behavior has long been tolerated but will never be embraced.
Future historians might well observe that the decline and fall of 21st century
America was directly linked to the cynical and deliberate exploitation of the
quite legitimate fear that followed the events of 9/11. America's face to the
rest of the world while dealing with the all too genuine threat posed by terrorism
has been delegated to spin doctors for whom perception is everything and substance
counts for little. Admittedly, the product that the public relations mavens
have had to work with is not exactly in demand. It is difficult to turn a sow's
ear into a silk purse even in the best of times, and American foreign policy,
which has been hijacked by ideologues who have made even the most solid international
relationships friable, is both reactionary and seriously adrift.
In a gentler time, public diplomacy was an aspect of foreign policy generally
handled by the United States Information Agency, which engaged with the local
media and attempted to correct misconceptions about U.S. policy or society.
It was not perceived as a propaganda tool per se, and it was generally
accepted that a prompt and judicious response to allegations based on misunderstandings
or poor information would serve the United States admirably. It relied on personal
connections with the local media and the establishment of a level of credibility
between the embassy officer and the local reporter. The embassy officer also
had considerable autonomy in the process and could take action to correct a
mistake in the local media as soon as it appeared.
Under the current administration, much of that long-established framework has
been discarded, however, and the emphasis has been to stop critical stories
whenever possible, to tightly control the message, and to spin the content of
the rebuttal to make it support a preconceived agenda. That agenda is to protect
the Bush administration from any and all criticism, justified or not, reasonable
or unreasonable, not to engage on the actual issues.
The latest spinmeister is the redoubtable Undersecretary of State for Public
Diplomacy Karen Hughes, a Bush confidant and loyalist who accepted her mandate
despite having no experience in foreign affairs or in dealing with foreigners.
Predictably, she has been an unmitigated disaster. Her misstatements are legion
and are rooted in a cultural insensitivity that is astonishing considering that
she has an experienced staff that presumably carefully weighs and shapes her
public utterances. She is the ugly American writ large in her assumption that
her values and views are empowering for all peoples and must have currency throughout
the world. They do not. Many Second- and Third-World women are quite content
with their traditional lifestyles and are not necessarily interested in being
able to drive or to become "soccer moms," a distinction that apparently eludes
poor Texas-centric Karen.
The intention to appoint Hughes to the State Department position was announced
by President Bush on March 14, 2005. Her job was initially described in glowing
terms as key to countering the anti-American sentiment that was growing worldwide
and to support the "global war on terror," but she oddly was allowed to take
an extensive leave of absence before assuming the position, leaving the assignment
vacant. Hughes described her absence as a much needed vacation to return to
her roots in Texas and spend time with her family, but in reality she quickly
became involved in the Texas senatorial campaign of John Cornyn as well as other
state races and began a speaking tour at a reported $50,000 a pop to build up
a substantial bank account before again becoming a government servant.
One of Hughes' first moves after returning to Washington in September 2005
was to assert control and get the State Department "on message." She shaped
her agenda in militaristic terms, demanding "rapid response" and calling for
the deployment of "SWAT teams." All ambassadors overseas were advised that they
could only speak publicly if they submitted their speeches for pre-approval
by Hughes's office. They would be allowed to speak in impromptu fashion but
only if they adhered strictly to the talking points send out by her office,
which would focus on the "democracy agenda" and the war on terror. "If they
make statements based on something I sent them," she declared, "they're not
going to be called on the carpet." Speaking frankly about problems in Iraq or
domestic issues like Hurricane Katrina was strictly forbidden.
Hughes quickly began to sell the White House's snake oil through multinational
trips, which were initially focused on Muslim countries. She called the trips
"listening tours" in an apparent attempt to show that she was open to the ideas
of foreign interlocutors. The first five-day-long "Innocents Abroad" trip to
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey included 16 carefully selected American journalists
who were expected to report on her successes with the foreign audiences. Unfortunately,
it did not quite work out that way. The foreigners selected to meet Hughes,
most of them women, were prescreened to make sure that they came from groups
that were either known to be friendly to the U.S. or dependent on embassy funding.
Hughes elaborated on several prepackaged themes in her meetings, expressing
her regret that more Muslim clerics did not immediately and vocally condemn
the 9/11 hijackers and also criticizing the lack of tolerance in the Muslim
world. Neither talking point went down particularly well with the traditional,
conservative audience, and both were generally perceived as being arrogant and
culturally ignorant. They might have been crafted to appeal more in replay to
an American audience through the gaggle of accompanying journalists and to show
that the Bush administration was being proactive. Her frequent references to
the Christian religion were especially maladroit as they touched on a particular
hot button for Muslims concerned that the Bush policy of military pressure on
a number of regimes is motivated by a desire to replace Islam with Christianity.
Hughes also demonstrated a bad egocentric tendency to talk about herself as
if she were part of the product being promoted, something that many culturally
self-effacing audiences found off-putting and unseemly.
In first stop, Egypt, Hughes stressed to a skeptical audience the religiosity
of the president and added that the U.S. Constitution includes the phrase "one
nation under God," which it does not. In Saudi Arabia, Hughes, repeatedly describing
herself inappropriately and condescendingly as a "working mom," urged a mostly
silent group of fully veiled women to obtain the right to drive because the
inability to operate a vehicle "negatively shaped the image of Saudi society"
in the U.S. She also equated driving with "freedom." In Turkey, Hughes lamely
attempted to connect with her audience by saying "I love kids," before being
confronted by women troubled about the deaths brought about by the invasion
of Iraq. She also heard concerns about America's apparent intention to introduce
democracy by force and explained somewhat confusingly that "to preserve the
peace, sometimes my country believes that war is necessary." It is not clear
how that translated into Turkish.
Not much given to introspection or self-critique, Hughes predictably blamed
her "listening tour" debacle on the local U.S. embassies, ordering some of her
senior assistants to follow up with visits of their own to "shake up" the embassy
staffs and demand a more aggressive promotion of the administration's "message."
She even threatened to replace personnel, up to and including the ambassador
level, if her demands were not met. This did not go down well with many career
diplomats who, unlike Hughes, understood the local language and culture and
felt they knew full well what could and could not be done in their host countries.
Hughes' next "listening tour" was to Indonesia and Malaysia, minus the 16 accompanying
journalists. In a testy press conference in Jakarta, she incorrectly stated
that Saddam Hussein had gassed "hundreds of thousands of Iraqis" and was later
confronted by an Indonesian student who rattled off a list of countries that
the U.S. has recently invaded and then asked, "Who's the terrorist? Bush or
Hughes has also made serious mistakes in her staffing decisions, which appear
to be driven by loyalty rather than competence. She has an extremely large staff
by State Department standards, an apparent reflection of her sense of entitlement
as a White House protégé. Her decision in the summer of 2006 to
circumvent the State Department's assignment system to place a poorly qualified
crony in a plum position in Europe was particularly insensitive. Hughes created
a new position to head a rapidresponse/media reaction center in Europe that
was to be placed in Brussels, a curious choice as the media in Belgium is largely
concentrated on European Union and NATO issues and lacks the foreign policy
awareness that drives the news in other capitals like Paris or London. It is
quite possible that the venue was selected by the nominee, however. Diane Zeleny,
a mid-level civil servant married to neocon backbencher Reuel Marc Gerecht,
might have manipulated the process, as she had previously worked in Brussels
as press officer for NATO and may have wanted to return there for reasons of
her own. The State Department's Foreign Service Association, not normally known
for expressions of public outrage, complained that the appointment was never
properly advertised so that others could apply for it, that it had violated
all "personnel rules and standard practices," and that it was a "precooked deal."
In late December, the appointment of Zeleny was overturned by the State Department's
director-general, though she will be allowed to stay in Brussels until the summer.
Recently, a mugged-by-reality Hughes has been somewhat more subdued and much
less in the news, carefully selecting her audiences and apparently avoiding
countries where she is likely to be confronted. Understanding finally that she
cannot transform the world's view of the United States while Washington persists
in policies that are unpalatable to most people, her recent trips, no longer
described as "listening tours," have included China, the Philippines, Jordan,
and Mexico. They are also less controversial in subject matter as she increasingly
promotes women's causes and talks about "inclusion," though she continues to
drop the occasional maladroit bomb. In a recent interview in Parade magazine,
she referred to terrorists as a "death cult" that is "intolerant of others,"
begging the question what an altruistic death cult would look like. Her solution
to the killer cultists? "Say it's not right to murder those who disagree." In
Jordan recently, Hughes encouraged more Arab women to go into business as a
development that would "bring peace," while in the Philippines she handed out
sewing machines to poor girls. She has hired a "Digital Outreach Team" consisting
of a small staff of Arabic-language-capable bloggers who post messages to counter
allegations and disinformation being circulated on overseas Web sites, a program
that she describes as successful based on the unlikely premise that the alleged
militant bloggers have been "universally receptive" to the input from State
Department employees. Hughes has also overseen the programming transition of
ill-conceived, expensive, and spectacularly unsuccessful radio and television
broadcasts in the Middle East through Radio Sawa, Radio Farda, and al-Hurra
Television, all of which now emphasize entertainment rather than news. After
all, entertainment is what it's all about.