Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2005, pages 24-26

Two Views

Karen Hughes’ “Listening Tour” and Its Aftermath

Selling America to the Muslim World

By Lucy Jones

Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, blows kisses to Turkish students during her Sept. 28 visit to the Turkish Education Volunteers Foundation in Istanbul (AFP Photo/Mustafa Ozer).

KAREN Hughes, the new undersecretary for public diplomacy in charge of improving the U.S. image abroad, has returned from several “listening tours” of the Muslim world.

Her first mission, in September, took her to close U.S. allies in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In October she visited Indonesia and Malaysia.

But the reception she got in those countries, where she met professional women and students among others, often bordered on the angry, and she was ridiculed in the press.

It was hardly the reaction George W. Bush’s close adviser, who has overseen campaigns to get him elected twice as governor of Texas and president, would have hoped for on her foray into diplomacy.

A group of women in Turkey told Hughes cooperation on women’s issues would be difficult, given the U.S. occupation of Iraq. One participant pointed out that war completely erases the rights of women.

“It’s Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and maybe it’s going to be in Indonesia, I don’t know. Who’s the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?” an Indonesian student asked Hughes in Jakarta. Another likened the American president to Adolf Hitler.

In Cairo, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was again condemned, while Hughes’ enthusiasm about Egypt’s recent multiparty presidential election—which saw intimidation and incidents of fraud and low turnout—amused many.

When Hughes told Saudi women in Jeddah they should be able to drive and “fully participate in society,” she was informed they are content. “The general image of the Arab woman is that she isn’t happy. Well, we’re all pretty happy,” a member of the audience said to a roomful of applause.

“Fiasco” was how U.S. commentator Fred Kaplan described the visit.

“Let’s say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans’ image of Islam,” he posited. “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.’”

But Hughes, 48, is well-skilled in the art of media spin, and some say she may yet rise to meet what must be her toughest challenge so far. She began her career as a television journalist, reporting for a local television station in Dallas-Fort Worth. After working for various Republican causes, she joined George W. Bush on his first campaign to become governor of Texas in 1994, when nobody thought he would win.

A Tough Campaigner

In those days, she gained a reputation as a tough campaigner. “Whatever [former Democratic Texas Governor] Ann Richards would wake up and say, Karen would be right back in her face,” recalled William McKenzie, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. “Political campaigns and the way they take place, she knows it all.”

The current aversion to Hughes, he added, is a result of her lack of acquaintance with the Boston-Washington policy axis. “She’s probably underestimated, like Bush,” he said.

Hughes moved to Washington in 2000 when her boss was elected president, but returned home after 18 months to spend more time with her family, who didn’t settle into life in the capital.

In her book Ten Minutes from Normal, Hughes describes how torn she was between motherhood and her career, and the decision she is very proud to have made to return to Texas to see her son through his last years of high school.

Hughes describes her diplomatic role as putting “a human face on America’s public policy.” On her Middle East tour, she made references (some would say too many) to herself being a “working mom,” and was photographed blowing kisses to children.

“Karen Hughes gave the mother image, the image of a modern woman...she added a soft touch to the Bush administration at a time when it is seen as an ugly ogre,” said Dr. Mansour El-Kikhia, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. It may have made an impression on some people, he said.

Hughes talks openly about her Christian beliefs. “I’m on my way to heaven,” she writes in her book. “Not to the heaven of quiet and rules that I envisioned as a child, but a heaven of joy and delight, where God has prepared a banquet, with fellowship and a big team, all in supporting roles.”

On her Middle East trip, she expounded on President Bush’s religious beliefs, a move University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, believes is dangerous. Such talk, Pape says, reinforces Osama bin Laden’s message.

“What she should have done was rebutted Bin Laden’s rhetoric,” he told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. “But she doesn’t seem to be aware of his rhetoric. Bin Laden’s core mobilization appeal for recruits is the crusader image he presents of the U.S. Bin Laden talks of the U.S. as a religious crusader, using force to transform Muslim societies according to the Christian agenda. The last thing you should do is suggest that you are motivated by religion or appear to be willing to impose Western values on Muslims.

“When she was asked ”˜why does Bush talk about God?’” Pape noted, “she answered, ”˜we are people of faith.’ But what is being heard is that ”˜we are people of the Crusades.’ She reinforces the image of the Bush administration as a crusader. When she emphasized that the U.S. administration is deeply religious, Bin Laden was probably smiling.”

Hughes also appeared to reject that women may freely choose a more traditional lifestyle, Pape added, which is what Bin Laden has told Muslims the West will do.

So how to win the hearts and souls of the Muslim world—where opinion polls rank George W. Bush as a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden?

“Public diplomacy’s new approach should be to directly counter the crusader image given by Bin Laden,” argued Pape.

“Tsunami relief—numerous opinion polls showed that American relief, more than anything else, improved our image in the Muslim world. This contradicted Osama bin Laden’s point that America wants to harm Muslims. We should have showcased this,” Pape emphasized.

“Secondly, Gaza withdrawal. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza has U.S. support. This contradicts Osama bin Laden’s view that the U.S. is supporting Israel’s expansion,” he added.

Hughes has plans for foreign exchanges which could go some way in bridging the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East, as may the regional teams she wants to establish to assess how Washington can improve its public diplomacy.

She also is considering using part of her almost $700 million budget to revive the government-published Cold War-era journal Problems of Communism in a format to address extremism, and wants to get more American Muslims on television broadcasts overseas.

All of this may be an improvement on her predecessors’ efforts. Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive who joined the State Department directly after the Sept. 11 attacks, found that selling America was much harder than marketing Uncle Ben’s rice, one of her previous accounts. Her “Shared Values” television advertising campaign, which showed U.S. Muslims going about their daily lives, fell flat on its face after several Arab countries refused to run the slot, and Beers was gone within two years. Her successor, Margaret Tutwiler, departed in April 2004, after one year, for the private sector, leaving the post empty until Hughes’ arrival.

As Dr. El-Kikhia pointed out, the Arab audience is extremely sophisticated. People are well acquainted with Hughes-type values from satellite television, where American lifestyle is displayed to the hilt. However, they differentiate between American culture and policy. With no policy changes, they are unlikely to change their views, El-Kikhia stated.

“The destruction of Iraq has inflamed the whole region,” he explained. “One hundred trips from Karen Hughes won’t heal it. And I don’t see any policy emerging out of her trip.”

According to Husain Haqqani with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, in order for change to take place, the U.S. needs to reach beyond its traditional contacts in the Middle East.

“My fear is Mrs. Hughes is being stage-managed by intermediaries between America and the Muslim world,” he said. “By intermediaries I mean the government elite, the beneficiaries in those countries of the U.S.

“If you don’t go beyond those intermediaries, you’re going to be in the same rut,” he said, adding that the U.S. may have to withdraw support from those intermediaries if it is going to find support among the wider Muslim public.

An impromptu meeting between Palestinian officials and the president at the beginning of October as a result of Hughes’ intervention may be a step in that direction (see p. XX). Some Jewish lobbyists are even expressing alarm at the emphasis she has put on U.S. support for a Palestinian state. But the question remains whether listening will lead to action, for in the opinion of most people, words on their own are worthless. 

Lucy Jones is a free-lance journalist based in London.

Of Missions and Missionaries

By Fawaz Turki

If all the world’s a stage, then what’s playing on it is America as morality play. And the painfully clueless Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who visited the Middle East last week to promote what is now called “public diplomacy”—the use of culture to foster goodwill toward the U.S.—was drama director.

To their credit, Americans care what other people around the world think of them, and are always anxious to limit or reverse the erosion of trust in their country by the international community. To that extent, they are unique. Big powers in history, from Imperial Rome to Colonial Britain, didn’t give two-pence what their colonized communities, the so-called “subjugated peoples,” thought of them. Military and economic might alone, they argued, would shape world opinion.

The problem here is not American popular culture—beloved and emulated everywhere—or even American political culture, imbued with the richest ideas about freedom, democracy, and individual rights, ideas embraced by a people who, since 1776, had valued diversity and openness in their lives, and continue to expect candor and accountability from their elected officials.

The problem rather is American foreign policy, that remains, where it is not bellicose, overtly and unabashedly moralistic in tone. Unless you live like us, they seem to be saying, yours is an inferior species of social formation.

Thus, Americans refuse to believe, say, Saudi Arabians, Egyptians and Indonesians when these folks explain that they are not advancing the notion that the American system is bad, just that it is bad for, or incompatible with, their culture and traditions.

This missionary position, to Americanize the world, as it were, has its roots in American history and comes straight out of the Puritan ethic. These folks’ paradigm derived from the world view that not only should Americans spurn a corrupt Europe, but that they had a “manifest destiny” in the New World, the right to “overspread the continent allotted by Providence for development.”

This world view, theological to the extreme, remained part of the American archetype, and was taken up by later generations of political leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush.

After World War I, for example, Wilson claimed that the U.S. had “seen visions that other nations have not seen,” and Bush, on the eve of war in Iraq, proclaimed that “we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country...the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”

Alas, America’s strategy for global primacy, not to mention its penchant for wanting to transform other societies in its image, has not worked out well. The United States’ great power has been humbled by a relentless insurgency in an ancient land whose culture Americans only vaguely understand; its allies are weary of its unilateralist posture; its potential friends in the Middle East—and trust me on this one, there are a lot of these floating around—are alienated by hypocritical policies it adamantly pursues in Palestine; its enemies around the world have grown bolder; and when it talks about exporting “reform, human rights, democracy and open markets,” those people in the region who are meant to be their beneficiaries turn away in nauseated disbelief.

America is gigantic, and the mistakes it has made in recent years have been the same size, from its involvement in the civil war in Vietnam in the 1960s to its manic support of Israel all these years, from its backing of two-bit dictators around the world during the Cold War (otherwise known with regret these days as “stability at the cost of democracy”) to its invasion of Iraq three years ago. Enter Karen Hughes in her visit to the Middle East during the last week of September.

So what did President Bush’s public diplomacy guru end up doing there? What did America, through her, want to say to the people of the region? Search me!

Hughes, a former reporter for a local television station in Texas, and close confidante to Bush when he was governor of the state, was an improbable ambassador. She has little foreign policy experience and her pedestrian, at times vapid, responses to questions raised by people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed she knew precious little about the region’s social concerns and political preoccupations.

In Egypt, asked a question about the Muslim Brotherhood, she turned quizzically to an aide to help her out, since she presumably had not heard of the group, which has been active and vocal in Egyptian politics since the 1920s.

Charged with burnishing the U.S. image in the Muslim world, she only succeeded in projecting a syrupy sweet demeanor, using hokey lines like “I am a mom and I love kids,” or banal observations, about what goals Palestinians should pursue, like “they should have children and families.”

In Turkey, she gushed: “I love all kids, and I understand that is something I have in common with the Turkish people—that they love children.”

In Cairo, when she asked a group of college students how many of them had voted in the recent presidential election, only one hand shot up. The next day, she worked into her standard speech a heart-warming story about meeting someone who had participated in the first multiparty election in Egypt’s history.

She also repeatedly claimed, in an interview on Al-Jazeera, that President Bush was the first American leader to call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, ignorant as she was of the fact that President Bill Clinton worked tirelessly to achieve that goal in the last few months of his tenure in the White House. (Come to think of it, President Carter had called for a “Palestinian homeland” while in office.)

Let the record show that no one has identified the gushy Hughes as an “ugly American,” just an inane one.

The source of anti-American attitudes in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Muslim world and in Western Europe, is clearly not American culture or American values, but, as Edward P. Djereijan, a retired diplomat who had served as ambassador in Damascus, said in an interview last week, “It’s the policies, stupid.”

I for one see no contradiction between people around the world listening to John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, watching Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen, attending a production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” reading Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, and heck, yes, wearing Levis and eating Big Macs, and slamming President Bush for his foreign policies. Let’s face it, a lot of Americans do just that every day of the week.

Karen Hughes’ visit to the Middle East would not have merited a column here were it not for the egregious remarks she kept making, especially in Saudi Arabia, about how Hamas militants are essentially a bunch of terrorists and how when Israel hits at them, it is hitting back in retaliation. She said that right there, as a guest, in the heartland of our world.

Thanks, Karen, message master, communications guru and undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. You came to our part of the world to aim at the public’s heart, and you ended up hitting it in the stomach. 

This article first appeared in the Arab News Oct. 5, 2005. Copyright: Arab News ©2005. Reprinted with permission.

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