Saturday, November 03, 2007
On the Resignation of Karen Hughes
My column from this weekend's National Post:
In the movie “Wag the Dog,” an embattled president hires a Hollywood producer to retrieve his image. The producer presents the president with a speech. Top aides read it over and pronounce it “corny.” The producer explodes in rage. “Corny? Corny? Of course it’s corny!”
Nobody except extreme political junkies had ever heard of Karen Hughes back then. But soon all the world was to become familiar with the style of work anticipated by the authors of “Wag the Dog.” As ne of the most trusted aides of George W. Bush, Hughes served in 2001-2003 White House communications director, and thus incidentally, my boss.
In 2005, Bush assigned Hughes responsibility for America’s public diplomacy – raising the country’s image in the world. Hughes resigned this week, to almost unanimously negative reviews.
Why did Karen Hughes so signally fail? Hint: It was not just her corniness. No, the real problem was a massive, central failure of strategy – a failure that now threatens the success of the entire Bush foreign policy.
As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Hughes focused her attentions on the Middle East.
For this job, she was never a natural candidate. As one critic wrote soon after she started work in the spring of 2005:
“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.’”
But even had Hughes spoken fluent Arabic and spent years in the region, her project still would have disastrously failed. It was President Bush himself who explained why. According to him (in for example his speech to the UN in September 2006), Middle Eastern violence has its origins in Middle Eastern political, economic, and social failures of the Middle East. Thus President Bush at the UN in September 2006: “For decades, millions of men and women in the region have been trapped in oppression and hopelessness. And these conditions left a generation disillusioned, and made this region a breeding ground for extremism.”
If this analysis is correct, Middle Eastern extremism would not respond to a “talking cure.” It will abate only when political conditions in the region are changed. Which suggested that Hughes’ attempts to win over Middle Easterners by presenting the United States as a country that shared their values and respected their faith was doomed from the start.
And so it proved.
Hughes reacted by redefining her mission. Instead of representing the administration in the Middle East, Hughes began to see it as her job to represent the Middle East to the administration. She became an advocate for downplaying the democracy initiative and reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks.
But this too created a paradox. If only actions, not words, could change the Middle East, then the United States was going to need help – and allies. In which case, the greatest need for public diplomacy was not in the Middle East, where public diplomacy could accomplish nothing, but in Europe and East Asia, where it could accomplish much.
Yet here, Hughes sacrificed real opportunities in pursuit of her Middle Eastern mirage.
In February 2006, a year into Hughes’ tenure, erupted the Danish cartoon controversy. Denmark – a NATO ally that had committed troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq – faced a global campaign of abuse and aggression. Hughes’ State Department responed by denouncing … the Danes:
“These cartoons are indeed offensive to the beliefs of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable. We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices.”
These words won America no friends in the Islamic world. But they cost the US some of its once closest supporters in Denmark.
One of the hardest things in diplomacy is to remember what it is you set out to do. All too often it happens that diplomats who set out to transform adversaries end up being transformed by their adversaries. That is the story of Karen Hughes – and it is her unhappy legacy.
11/03 08:54 PM