NEW YORK—It’s still difficult to adjust to Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. For most of the time she has been in the public eye, she was one of President Bush’s closest advisors—one of the “Texas Set” who had close cultural roots to the president.
In fact, there was probably nobody the president trusted more than Hughes, who became one of the most powerful female advisors ever to work in the White House.
Hughes and Bush go back a long way. She was his tough-talking communications director when he was governor of Texas, following him to the White House as advisor. Most notoriously, she served on the White House Iraq Group, which sought ways to sell the Iraq war to the American public. She surprised many by suddenly leaving the White House and returning to Texas in 2002, amid speculation over divisions on Iraq policy.
But it was hard to let go. She spoke to the president several times a week and helped to shape his re-election strategy. Now, she has the rank of ambassador in the State Department, charged with changing the perception of the United States abroad—and all poll indications suggest that the country badly needs to change international opinion.
One of the key goals on her agenda is to reshape the role of U.S. ambassadors. For instance, when she first joined the State Department, she said there was an unwritten rule that ambassadors simply did not speak to the press until the journalist first obtained clearance from Washington. So now it is Hughes’s task to shake up the status quo and bring in a new rapid reaction system, which can only be achieved, she argues, by forcing ambassadors out of their shells to engage with local media.
“I like to say that there is only one secretary of state but over 200 ambassadors and chiefs of mission, and so I really work to get our ambassadors and chiefs of mission and other U.S. officials out engaging with international media,” she explained.
According to Hughes, the problem with U.S. ambassadors was that many adhered closely to protocol while the United States was fighting an intense propaganda war with its enemies. But prevaricating about whether to talk to the media is simply no longer acceptable.
“It used to be that the call [from the media] didn’t get returned or it was two days too late. I did away with that,” declared Hughes proudly. “I said, ‘We want you to engage as our ambassadors; we want you to be the face and the voice and representation of America.’”
Hughes also set up special hubs in Europe and the Middle East to deal with the regional media. There are two European hubs, in London and Brussels, and one in Dubai, in which the United States employs two Arab speakers to debate across the Arab media. The hubs have also become a useful dropping-in point for ambassadors and diplomats in training.
To that end, Hughes is proud that Adam Ereli, who served in the London hub, later went on to become U.S. ambassador to Bahrain. Dan Sreebny, who also served in London, went on to work in Turkey as the hubs moved diplomats further into the Muslim world.
The hubs serve another vital interest: getting U.S. officials and diplomats booked on local media. Hughes is particularly excited about an e-mail she received from a producer at the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), a station often strident in its criticism of U.S. foreign policy. The producer told her that the BBC never had so many U.S. officials on the air because it used to be so difficult to persuade them to come on.
The whole nature of ambassadors’ engagement with their host country is changing, Hughes insisted, as more countries turn to democracy. Now, unofficial backroom deals just aren’t going to work, and U.S. ambassadors must factor in public opinion much more critically.
“In today’s world, with more and more countries turning to democracy, it’s no longer enough for a diplomat to go quietly to a [host country] government official to get things done. Now that government official has to go to his public,” she said.
Hughes also wants to address another problem: the filtering of news to ambassadors and senior U.S. officials. When she came on the job, she feared that the top level was being shielded from the harshest criticism of U.S. foreign policy. To counter that, she set up a “media monitoring and rapid response center” to write what she calls a “very honest” briefing every morning for the cabinet, ambassadors and military chiefs that bluntly states what the world’s media is saying about the United States.
“It says, ‘A European paper complained on the front page about America’s X policy or in the Middle East, they greeted the president’s speech with skepticism,’” explained Hughes. “It gives an honest look at the way international publics are hearing the news from America, and I hope that informs our policymakers.”
In fact, she had some copies of the briefings with her, some showing negative reaction to a statement by President Bush on the Middle East, with points for diplomats on how to counter it in the international media.
It’s a way of cutting through the bureaucracy and getting tough news to the people at the top—or, as Hughes puts it, “getting the very complex U.S. government on the same page.”
For Hughes’ supporters, she is a tough Texan, a plain-talker and someone committed to helping the president. To those who dislike her, she has been the embodiment of all that was wrong with the Bush administration—overly secretive, self-congratulating and short of real facts.
Libertarian-conservative columnist and commentator Tucker Carlson said that after meeting her, he was astonished at how dishonest she was willing to be, when it was obvious he knew she wasn’t telling the truth.
In person, however, Hughes seemed engaging and personable, willing to listen to criticism and respond to it. I noticed that she arrived for our interview in a giant sport-utility vehicle, which someone was diligently dusting as she talked to State Department officials. Accompanying her car were her security detail and advisors, who rode in SUVs just as big.
I mentioned that European opinion polls show a negative reaction to America’s slow response to global warming, wondering if the woman tasked with changing the perception of the United States could not make a bold statement by riding in a smaller car, perhaps even a hybrid. Hughes winced and smiled awkwardly at the question.
She responded that it is a very interesting point and one that she is going to suggest to the State Department. In her defense, she said, she drives a Toyota in her personal life and walks to work at the State Department.
On other points though, she was more defiant. Hughes is adamant that the war in Iraq, which she did much to shape, is not a distraction from the larger war on terror and that the United States has never taken its eyes off capturing Osama bin Laden and destroying al Qaeda.
Now her battle is about what she calls “waging peace.” Hughes said she has had to “fight very hard” to get extra U.S. government funding for cultural exchange programs for students and education camps in Muslim countries, noting that such camps—in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey—have encouraged teenagers to play sports, learn English and have fun.
As she listed the various programs she’s helped to enact, it’s difficult not to wonder why this tactic wasn’t considered more carefully as an alternative to war. For instance, one boy she met in Morocco said he liked to learn English because it got him a job and none of his friends had jobs. The boy, according to Hughes, was from the same area of the country as some notorious suicide bombers.
Hughes accepts that the role of public diplomacy had been severely downplayed by both Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s. Her position was created in 1999 after the old U.S. Information Agency was merged into the State Department to cut costs.
There was a pervasive feeling that “we prevailed in the Cold War, there is no need to reach out to the world as much,” she admitted. “I think the years since have proven public diplomacy to be more important than ever before.” Spoken like a true diplomat.
About the Author
Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.