Friday, May 13, 2005

Beacon No. 36: A Little Too Deep in the Heart of Texas


A few weeks ago I mentioned Arnaud de Borchgrave's advice to Karen Hughes, the presumptive under secretary of state for public diplomacy, former Bush/Cheney campaign dynamo and former KXAS-TV news reporter. De Borchgrave and innumerable other Washingtonians have given Hughes a trove of advice; but the under secretary-designate isn't around to receive it.

At a time when even Vice President Cheney tells the Washington Post that public diplomacy "has been a weak part of our arsenal," Hughes hasn't been confirmed by the Senate. Neither has her deputy-to-be, Dina Powell, who apparently won't be ready for work for another couple of months.

Hughes, for one, isn't in a State Department office, doing advance work prior to Senate confirmation. She is in Texas, waiting for her son to leave for college, and expects to be there until the fall.

A little background: Hughes left the White House in 2002 to spend more time with her family, and unlike most elected officials who use those words, she actually walked the walk of going back to being Everymom. She reemerged for the 2004 campaign, and after seeing her candidate to victory, accepted President Bush's nomination to help lead State's public-diplomacy efforts.

Unfortunately, either the president's nomination was premature—just a way of holding the seat for Hughes for a few months—or public diplomacy isn't the high priority the administration claims. After all, six months between nomination and swearing-in is a little much, a full eighth of a presidential term.

U.S. public diplomacy cries out for a leader who can be present to lead, or at least drop by the State Department to share her vision for public diplomacy—not one whose name is on the door but whose head and heart are still on other things.

It's possible that Hughes already starting to manage her part of State by phone, e-mail and fax from her home; she may be doing it as I sit here typing late on a Friday afternoon. And some version of that method served her well in two presidential campaigns.

But a campaign is necessarily reactive and ad hoc, and what the U.S. needs right now is for someone with Hughes' intellect, drive and access to the president to create an inspired, 10- to 20-year schedule for improving U.S. public diplomacy.

That way, a proactive plan will be up and running by the time President Bush's successor (whether Republican or Democrat) takes office in January 2009. The U.S. will have moved that much further toward fully harnessing its soft power, and under secretary Hughes can attend her son's college graduation that May with a sense of her own achievement.


Anonymous said...

I've seen your blog through the USC public diplomacy links and have enjoyed the commentary. One thought, related not to the delay in Karen Hughes taking her position but to the problems we face in public diplomacy, concerns the Newsweek report on what happened in Guantanamo with the Quran. Newsweek's retraction of its report is irrelevant; very few people in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Muslim world will ever believe that the original report was not true. In its rush to be first with the news, Newsweek committed a terrible mistake by relying on one, uncorroborated source. I don't think that a strong public diplomacy program could have stopped the report, but at the least there would have been a strong response by our government pointing out that the US is a religious country that respects all religions. Now whatever we do is too late, the damage has already been done.

Paul Kretkowski ( said...

Dear Anonymous,

Unfortunately I agree that the damage has been done. But a strong public diplomacy program could have prevented Muslims worldwide from being so ready to believe the Newsweek report; perhaps better Afghan knowledge of the U.S.--that the burning of any book, let alone a Qur'an, is an aberration here--could have limited the damage.

Jerrold Keilson (formerly anonymous) said...

Dear Paul,
You are correct that a robust public diplomacy program would have limited the damage, but the challenge is to define the messages a public diplomacy program should emphasize. The Bush administration has tended to equate public diplomacy with defense/justification of its policies; I suggest that it is more appropriate to emphasize core American values. If our public diplomacy efforts focused on values such as religious freedom, transparency, freedom of speech, accountability and the like, then we would be able to legitimately mount the defense that acts such as desecrating a holy book are aberrations, and that under the rule of law the perpetrators will be brought to justice. In the recent Alan Heil book on VOA he relates a story in which a VOA listener, during the broadcast of a presidential debate, is amazed that the moderator says to the President of the United States, "I'm sorry but your time is up." To that listener this event showed how even the President has to obey the same rules as anybody else.

Those are the sorts of things that should be emphasized in our public diplomacy efforts. That they are not is what makes it easy for Muslims to believe the Newsweek report. Rather than condemning Newsweek, I would wish that the Administration open a public investigation into the allegations and deal with the outcome openly and transparently.

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