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Karen Hughes’ New Mission to Improve America’s Image Overseas

March 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: By nominating Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, President Bush has tapped one of his closest and most trusted advisors for a difficult job. At his press conference this morning, the president emphasized the importance he is placing on improving America’s image abroad, especially in the Middle East.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s very important for us to have a message to counteract what is coming out of the Arab media, in particular, especially on the issue of Israel, some of it coming out of our strong and unwavering friendship with Israel. You know, Israel is an easy target for some of the media in the Middle East. If you’re a friend of Israel, you become a target.

TERENCE SMITH: On Monday, appearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes described her own view of the job ahead.

KAREN HUGHES: I view America’s public diplomacy as a partnership for progress, an opportunity to work with other nations and peoples to replace oppression with opportunity, tyranny with tolerance, and ultimately to overcome hate with hope.

TERENCE SMITH: Marketing America overseas is not new to this administration. In his first term, following the invasion of Afghanistan, the president devoted his first primetime news conference to laying out the goals of a new information offensive.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have got to do a better job of making our case. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining to the people in the Middle East, for example, that we don’t fight a war against Islam or Muslims; we don’t hold any religion accountable. We’re fighting evil.

KAREN HUGHES: Documenting the misstatements that have been made by the Taliban…

TERENCE SMITH: Karen Hughes, then counselor to the president, ran the White House message war room and helped push the government’s message on Arab satellite networks, especially al Jazeera, with its viewership of some 40 million.

As part of those early public diplomacy efforts, the administration also named Madison Avenue ad executive Charlotte Beers as its first Undersecretary Of State For Public Diplomacy.

AD SPOKESMAN: Religious freedom here is something very important and no one ever bothered us.

TERENCE SMITH: Then came television ads selling life in America. And a new radio network, Sawa, a mixture of western and Middle Eastern music and talk in Arabic.

SPOKESMAN: Stand by 45 seconds. Cue music and take four.

TERENCE SMITH: In 2004, the government began funding al Hurra, a 24-hour satellite television channel based outside Washington that broadcasts news and entertainment to 22 countries across the Arab world. Charlotte Beers left her post after 17 months. Veteran State Department operative Margaret Tutwiler came in after the post was vacant for eight months. She left after only six months.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite the U.S. efforts and substantially increased funding, Karen Hughes faces a formidable task. Recent polls show a sharp rise in anti-American sentiment amongst Arabs and Muslims since 2002.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me to discuss the nomination of Karen Hughes and the progress of U.S. public diplomacy efforts are: Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Shibley Telhami, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of “The Stakes,” about U.S policy in the Middle East; and Harold Pachios, a four-term member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He served as its chairman from 1999 until 2003. Welcome to you all.

Sen. Lugar, give us your reaction, if you will, to both the nomination of Karen Hughes, and your assessment of the problems that she’s going to confront if she’s approved by the Senate.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I’m enthusiastic about the nomination. I believe that Karen Hughes is close to the President of the United States. His commitment to public diplomacy has always been strong, but she will be an instrument to making certain that those messages are conveyed from him.

I would say that the awesome work ahead of both the president and Karen Hughes cannot be underestimated. The polls in most countries indicate that the United States is not well regarded by most countries. This is shocking, and it’s especially unfortunate in the Middle-Eastern context, but not confined to there– in Latin America, likewise, and in many European countries.

The president and this administration have tried various persons that you’ve already indicated. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held numerous hearings, lamenting the fate of American public diplomacy, and there’s been a vacancy for a while. So this is really refreshing.

I would say more money is going to be available to Karen Hughes, about a billion and a half dollars, the largest commitment our country has ever made to public diplomacy by $420 million for exchanges, cultural exchanges, educational exchanges, which most people believe are an important component of this.

But finally, there may be at least more of a story to tell. The media, quite apart from public diplomacy efforts, is pointing out al Jazeera has picked up in the Lebanese crowds, waving flags in behalf of democracy and Lebanese independence, and some other situations that perhaps al Jazeera has been less interested in the past. And this whole democracy wave is something not only to cover, but to describe, to inform. It may be contagious, and so the tide may be going with Karen Hughes as she commences her work.

TERENCE SMITH: Harold Pachios, the senator pointed out that, you know, she’s the third person to fill this job in a little more than three years. What can Karen Hughes accomplish in your view that her predecessors could not?

HAROLD PACHIOS: Terry, she can accomplish, I think, a lot more than her predecessors simply because she’s close to the center of power. Ed Murrow, when he was head of the United States Information Agency back in the 1960s, once said about public diplomacy that is influencing foreign publics that it is important for public diplomacy people to be at the takeoff on policy, and not just at the crash landing.

She will be there. She is the first person to serve in this post, and really the first person in many, many years, going way back to the USIA days, when…who has the ability to talk to the President of the United States on a regular basis about these things. Ultimately, whatever we do — exchange programs, radio, television you mentioned some of these– can’t really turn the tide.

The chief public diplomist — public diplomatist of the United States is the President of the United States, and it starts there, and I think, frankly, this is a brilliant appointment. I think it’s very good news. More than anything else, it shows that the president is extremely keen on changing this terrible perception of the United States abroad, and it can only be done by someone who’s very close to him personally.

TERENCE SMITH: Shibley Telhami, the president pointed out in his news conference that much of the criticism in the Arab press of the United States stems from its policy on Israel. Is that your finding? I know that you conduct polling, and you stay abreast of attitudes in the Arab world. Is that your finding, and therefore is the problem the image or the policy?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, that’s a really excellent question, because I think I agree with both speakers before that Karen Hughes is a good appointment in the sense that she will have access. It’s essential that a person in that position have access to policymakers.

The real question is whether you have a philosophical change here, from seeing public diplomacy as just telling the world how good we are, selling America, to something more profound, which is to influencing the shaping of policy in a way that resonates with the rest of the world. That’s essential, because if you look at public opinion polls, most of the public opinion is influenced by policy, not by images.

Let me give you an example. In my surveys about Arab media, I tried to find out whether there’s a direct relationship, a statistical relationship, between what people watch and their attitudes towards the U.S. I could not find any significant statistical relationship. People who don’t watch al Jazeera are as anti-American as people who do. People who have no satellite, people who watch CNN, tend to be as resentful. In the same way that you will find people who don’t have Arab Television in Europe and Africa and Latin America who are resentful of America.

So the real issue here isn’t really so much public diplomacy, seen as selling America, but finding a way where public diplomacy can help shape policy. And I think there are ways in which public diplomacy could be extremely helpful in the shaping of policy: number one, communicating America’s message in a way that is trusted by the rest of the world. The collapse of trust today is the more profoundly important issue than just the unfavorable view of the U.S. You need a trusted message.

When you ask people “Do you trust America today,” the vast majority don’t believe what we say. They don’t believe we’re advocating democracy. That’s something it can do. Communicating back to policymakers what resonates with the rest of the world. Policies are not ends in themselves; they’re instruments for interest; and therefore public diplomacy should be listening to the outside world to help policymakers formulate the right policies to serve their interests.

TERENCE SMITH: Sen. Lugar, pick up on that point. Shibley Telhami says, in effect, the first issue is credibility.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Of course he’s right. There has to be credibility and trust. In America, we believe that we stand for that. To the extent that we compromise it, we do away, really, with the effectiveness of public diplomacy. But there are also– and I appreciated one of Shibley’s points– there are all sorts of undercurrents in countries, leaving aside whatever may be al Jazeera or the networks.

For example, we had a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee just today in which it was suggested that the people of most European countries, by a large majorities, would not be in favor of the European Union ending an arms embargo with China. This is an elite situation, by and large, with the arms industry or merchants in Europe.

Now, from time to time we way be appealing to public opinions, influencing other countries and their leadership simply because they are on the same wavelength with us, with regard to human rights, with regard to fairness, with regard to a number of moral virtues that we believe are a part of our foreign policy. And so as long as we stay on that track, people may disagree with us profoundly, but the trust factor cannot be overemphasized.

TERENCE SMITH: Harold Pachios, you have been on this Commission for some years now and have watched the progress of these efforts. Senator Lugar used a very large sum earlier; he said a billion and a half dollars. Is this country getting its money’s worth?

HAROLD PACHIOS: Well, I don’t know if they’re getting their money’s worth. Money’s important. I think they’re getting their money’s worth for the money that’s being spent, but I don’t think the money is the issue, Terry.

Look, this is… we’re talking about influencing people throughout the world, changing our global image. And it’s not unlike domestic politics, frankly. We’re the best in the world at trying to appeal to people. Politicians in the country know how to do that, and Karen Hughes knows how to do it, and you do it with both substance and message. And I think Karen Hughes, from what I’ve read about her, is a very substantive person, and she understands something about message.

So Shibley is correct: We’re not going to just massage the message and change this at all. Policy is important. She knows that. And when you are making an appeal to a domestic audience, a constituency, you know that what you say, what your policies are, have an impact, and it’s no different when we’re talking about global audiences and a global constituency, which today the global constituency is critical to the achievement of American foreign policy goals because no longer do governments anywhere in the world, even authoritarian governments, do anything without basic public consent in their own countries.

TERENCE SMITH: Shibley Telhami, Karen Hughes is very close to the president and very influential, but she is not deeply experienced in matters of international relations, to say much about the Middle East and that area. Is that a problem? Is that an obstacle in terms of the job that she has in front of her and the people she wants to influence?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: It’s a potential obstacle, clearly you have to have clarity about what the problem is that you’re facing, and without expertise, you’d have a tough time identifying the problem. The issue is not just countering “bad press” around the rest of the world; that’s one of the problems.

So, but I think she’s proven to be a capable operative. She’s a learner. She’s going to have to need a lot of experts around her. Clearly when we did this commission on public diplomacy, we found that very, very few people in the U.S. Government who speak the languages who are capable of communicating.

I think what we must understand is one of the functions of this office, aside from input into policy, is building bridges over time, in the long term. It’s not just for short term. What you want to do is you want to build relations with society that are the reservoir of support in times of crisis. You know you’re going to go through crisis with any country around the world. You’re going to have confrontation, but you need to be able to sustain that, to sustain yourself through that, and to build that across time is really the important mission for any public diplomacy program to be effective.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. I’m afraid we’re out of time. Sen. Lugar, Hal Pachios, and Shibley Telhami, thank you very much.