Karen Hughes, stay home!

Military analysis.
Sept. 29 2005 4:27 PM

Karen Hughes, Stay Home!

What on earth is she doing in the Middle East?

Karen on tour. Click image to expand.
Karen on tour

Could someone please explain to me what Karen Hughes is doing. Her maiden voyage to the Middle East has turned into a fiasco. She assures a room of Saudi women that they, too, will someday drive cars; they tell her they're actually happy right now, thank you. She meets with a group of Turkish women —hand-picked by an outfit that supports women running for political office—who brusquely tell her she has no credibility as long as U.S. troops occupy Iraq.

In a sense, this is par for the course when American officials meet with unofficial audiences abroad. But here's the puzzler: Why is it Karen Hughes who's taking these meetings? It was strange enough when her longtime friend President George W. Bush named her as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. It's absolutely mind-numbing to discover that she considers it one of her mandates to be the public diplomat.

Advertisement

The main task of this posting is to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Let us stipulate for a moment that Hughes is ideally suited for the job—that she can figure out how to spin sheiks, imams, and "the Arab street" as agilely as she spun the White House press corps in her days as Bush's communications director.

Even if that were so, why would anybody assume that she is the one to do the face-to-face spinning? Wouldn't it be better to find someone who—oh, I don't know—speaks the language, knows the culture, lived there for a while, was maybe born there?

Put the shoe on the other foot. Let's say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans' image of Islam. 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." Yet this would be the clueless counterpart to Karen Hughes, with her lame attempts at bonding ("I'm a working mom") and her tin-eared assurances that President Bush is a man of God (you can almost hear the Muslim women thinking, "Yes, we know, that's why he's relaunched the Crusades").

Hughes is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this admittedly daunting position since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And she's the third piece of living evidence that he has no idea what "public diplomacy" requires.

His first pick was Charlotte Beers, a brilliant advertising executive—a reflection of the notion that all we needed to do was come up with a better slogan. Beers was driven out of town on a rail after preview audiences howled and jeered at a propaganda film she'd produced. Next up was Margaret Tutwiler, the hard-driving press spokeswoman for James Baker when he was secretary of state under Bush's father. She, too, came up zeros.

And now here is Hughes, once again a strong woman with no substantive experience on the subject, who was named to the job last March but put off coming to work so she could spend quality time with her son before he went off to college—a laudable priority for Hughes personally, but this indulgence by the president of the United States casts doubt on how urgently he regards the job's mission.

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a vast, independent public-diplomacy program in embassies all over the world—libraries, speakers' bureaus, concert tours by famous jazz musicians, and broadcasts of news and music on the Voice of America. Together, they conveyed an appealing image of a free, even boisterous, America in the face of an implacable, totalitarian Communist foe.

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes. But Karen Hughes would be spending her time more wisely trying to come up with some.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.