And so Karen Hughes is leaving her post as "public diplomat" in much the same way she assumed it, with an air of farce and mystery.
The farcical qualities, in both phases, were up front for all to see. Her entrance two years ago, in a high-profile PR trip to the Middle East, was a jaw-dropping display of ignorance and malapropism that made her the laughing stock of the region. Her announced exit yesterday was marked by tributes to her alleged achievements that were simply surreal.
But it is the mysteries that are murkier. Why was Karen Hughes—this hard-headed but provincial Texan with no experience in foreign affairs and only a smattering of irrelevant Spanish—handed the job of repairing America's image in the Muslim world? And, with just over a year to go in his presidency, why is this avid Bush loyalist leaving now?
This latter question is at least intriguing and perhaps ominous. Her move, I'm told, came as a complete surprise to her senior staff, some of whom had been assured only days earlier that she'd stick around till the end of the term. Her publicly stated reasons for departing are unpersuasive—a mix of the banal (she wants to spend more time with her husband) and the absurd (she's accomplished everything she set out to do).
A long time ago, President Bush said, quite reasonably, that a government program should be judged by its results. By that measure, Hughes' tenure as undersecretary of state for public affairs has been a bust.
The main purpose of public diplomacy is to foster a better understanding of America and to improve its image in the world. Yet since Hughes took the job, our image—already bleak—has deteriorated to new lows.
Hughes can hardly be blamed for this dreadful situation, any more than Bill Cosby could be blamed for the failure of New Coke. You can wrap swill in the grandest ad campaign, but no one with taste buds will be fooled. It's the same with foreign policy: You can craft a fine message and recite it with a smile, but the reception will be determined by what a country does.
Since her disastrous trip, Hughes has kept a low profile and tried to fashion a finer message. She built up instant-response teams to counter the more outrageous slanders in the Arab media, and she hired more Arabic speakers to appear on Middle Eastern TV networks, including Al Jazeera. A year ago, when word got back that one of these speakers, Alberto Fernandez, had said that the United States was acting with "arrogance" in Iraq, Hughes came under pressure from certain quarters to fire him, but she resisted and kept him onboard.
More recently, she has started to send out guest speakers who are critical of U.S. policy—not radical (there will be no State Department-sponsored tours for Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore), but nonetheless critical. Recently, she sent the anti-war hip-hop band Ozomatli on a concert tour to the Middle East, where crowds greeted them with enthusiasm.
In the 1960s and '70s, when it was an independent entity, the U.S. Information Agency sent out critical speakers and exuberant jazz bands routinely. They drew a distinction between selling America and selling American policy. Selling America—its culture, its traditions of free speech and pluralism—was what "public diplomacy" was about. Selling American policy—that was just propaganda.