Karen Hughes is not as visible as when she worked at the White House, or on two presidential campaigns, but her 16 months as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs have given her opportunities to counter what she calls the "propaganda" that the media in many Arab and Muslim countries convey to their people about the United States.
In a meeting (Dec. 19) in her State Department office, Hughes told me she recognizes the difference between the Cold War, when "we were trying to get information into largely closed societies whose people were hungry to hear from us," and today, when "we're competing for attention and credibility in a very crowded communications environment."
She points to three big areas on which she is focusing: (1) exchanges that allow people who have never been to America to come and see for themselves what we are like; (2) communications, which promote the policies of the American government in nations where they have been mostly unheard, or twisted for the political ends of the rulers; and (3) what she calls "the diplomacy of deeds," that is, focusing on America's actions that help people improve their lives.
Hughes has told American ambassadors around the world to get on local television more and articulate official policy to counter propaganda that communicates a false view of America. That's all well and good, but would most Americans accept the pronouncements of an ambassador from, say, Iran? The United States continues to believe that because we see ourselves as objectively good, the rest of the world can be persuaded of our goodness and not take up arms against us. I'm sure some can be so persuaded, but probably not nearly enough and very likely not soon enough to prevent more attacks.
Hughes mentions a group of Saudi clerics who made their first visit to America at the State Department's invitation. She says she had been told their Friday sermons "had been very negative, very anti-American." They visited American synagogues, mosques and churches. Hughes says she was told by "our people on the ground" in Saudi Arabia that the clerics now have a "much different and changed view of our country."
I ask if Hughes has checked on the content of their sermons since their return to Saudi Arabia. She says she has not, but has received reports that there has been a "difference" and that the clerics have a different view of America. I wonder if this is part of the propaganda ploy, to tell us what we want to hear so we will let down our guard. Can they be converted, if not to our point of view, than at least to foreswear violence in pursuit of their political objectives?
Hughes concedes that the Muslim world mostly regards our freedom as licentiousness. They get their impressions of the U.S. through our media, which mostly consists of immodestly dressed women, violence and car chases. That's the "entertainment" and image we export, so why should they not conclude this is who we are?
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Hughes is particularly fond of the exchange program that allows students and others to come to the U.S. to study and to observe Muslims and others able to dress, worship and associate as they please. Again, I wonder if this approach is a Cold War relic. The 9/11 hijackers lived, worked, worshiped and observed our way of life, and they killed 3,000 of us. Following the British bombings two summers ago, the British public expressed shock that "home grown" young Muslim men could turn on their fellow countrymen. The reason is that they did not see Britain as their country, but heaven as their destination and jihad as their vehicle for getting there.
Hughes also speaks of a coming "major Western Hemisphere initiative" to do more and communicate more with Latin American countries. She says the Bush administration has nearly doubled U.S. assistance to the region, but most don't know about it because their media don't tell them.
I wouldn't stop what Karen Hughes is doing, but I do wonder and worry whether this outreach to the Arab and Muslim world, in particular, will make a significant difference in a war between cultures that is fueled by religious zeal. Even Hughes acknowledges, "This is a long struggle."