In early March, George W. Bush named his longtime adviser Karen Hughes the administration's undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Apparently, it's a woman's job: She was the third to be named to that post since September 11. At her conﬁrmation hearing, she spoke in familiar terms about the daunting task of repairing America's image in the world, and chose, like the women who preceded her, to emphasize the need to reinvigorate public diplomacy.
Her predecessors made little progress. Madison Avenue public-relations executive Charlotte Beers, appointed shortly after 9-11, lasted until March 2003, during which time she earned the criticism of the press, members of Congress, and foreign governments for her slickly produced (and expensive) television advertising campaign about American Muslims. State Department veteran Margaret Tutwiler, who took up the mantle of public diplomacy in December 2003, was gone within seven months amid reports that she'd found the position frustrating.
Like Tutwiler, Hughes is starting by embracing the high-minded ambitions of the department's road map, the October 2003 report Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategy for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World. That report was produced under the leadership of Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador with a long diplomatic career in mostly Republican administrations. It recommended a major strategic shift in America's public-diplomacy efforts, suggesting a new cabinet-level White House special counselor, the reactivation of a dormant interagency policy coordinating group at the National Security Council, and more than 500 new area experts with strong language skills at the State Department -- plus ﬁnancing, which the report called “absurdly and dangerously inadequate,” for all of them.
Djerejian says he has been advising Hughes “rather intensively” and considers her appointment the equivalent of the cabinet-level position the report requested, given her close ties to the president. “It is my full expectation that once Karen Hughes walks into that office, she's going to hit the road running,” says Djerejian, who directs the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Yet despite Hughes' reputation for being a communications attack dog, she may have no more luck than her predecessors. The main reason is that the real mover of international opinion about America is American foreign policy, which remains stunningly unpopular and which Hughes will be largely unable to alter from her new post. Even so, there are reasons intrinsic to the public-diplomacy effort that don't help.
For starters, the administration's pro-America campaigns under her purview are promoting a highly commercial, lowest-common-denominator American pop culture to which much of the Arab and Muslim world already has access. Further, what made Hughes a canny GOP operative -- her experiences as a suburban mom and intuitive understanding of American rhetoric -- may not make up for her lack of expertise in Arab or Muslim affairs. Finally, critics ask, can an administration that has turned its disdain for elite American culture into a virtual way of life promote that very same culture abroad?
International stereotypes aside, American culture is a diverse affair that makes room for Mozart, Motown, and Moby alike. But the GOP has turned American high culture into a target, the product of shady Eastern elites, big-city liberals, and tenured radicals.
Indeed, since the mid-1990s, America has engaged in a kind of unilateral cultural disarmament, as spending on public diplomacy in the post–Cold War world was slashed. The U.S. Information Agency, founded in 1953, was eliminated by the Republican Congress in 1999, and by 2002, the State Department's own internal estimates showed it spending just $25 million a year on public-diplomacy outreach to the entire Arab and Muslim world (after 9-11!). “To say that ﬁnancial resources are inadequate to the task is a gross understatement,” Changing Minds concluded.
Hughes sketched out an ambitious agenda at her Senate conﬁrmation hearing, laying out a program of engagement, education, exchanges, and empowerment. But even if she succeeds at shaking up the bureaucracy, she's unlikely to make more signiﬁcant public-diplomacy inroads. Though born in Paris and raised abroad initially, Hughes' specialty in America has been attacking other Americans. Hughes helped Bush win two terms in office at considerable cost to his credibility; 50 percent of the nation thinks he is dishonest, according to an August Associated Press–Ipsos poll. Winning campaigns divisively and at the cost of tremendous dissatisfaction among political minorities may work here, but overseas, campaigns that demonize are likely to have very different consequences.
What's more, the newest programs Hughes has inherited for her public diplomacy, and which she's pledged to support, mostly promote pop culture -- precisely the cultural products most likely to irritate Arab and Muslim traditionalists (just as they do social conservatives at home). New radio shows, a television station, and an Arab-language magazine all focus on disseminating the popular and the lowbrow at the expense of more educational materials.
The Arab-language monthly Hi magazine, produced since 2003 for the State Department, has pitched America as a gee-whiz futuristic society whose consumers are obsessed with the latest gadgets and peculiar dating strategies. No joke: Hi magazine recently featured a story on the “Dinner in the Dark” dating service, and another on Flexcars, whose relevance to, say, tribal areas of Pakistan is open to some serious question. TV station Al-Hurra was launched in 2004 as a kind of American alternative to Arabic news network Al-Jazeera, and has been met with decidedly mixed reviews in the Arab world, where suspicion of government-backed television channels is high.
Other recent efforts are likewise not clear winners. The Voice of America's Arab radio edition was eliminated in 2002 in favor of a new venture, Radio Sawa, a lifestyle channel broadcasting a mix of American and Arab pop music for a less talk, more schlock approach. Critics dub the approach “pop-aganda”; a report drafted by the State Department's inspector general in 2004 found that the $22 million a year channel “failed to present America to its audience.”
Djererian's report suggests that translating books into Arabic and focusing on educational and cultural exchanges could be more important to Arab American understanding in the long term than providing better access to Britney Spear's latest hit. The issue of books is especially salient. According to a 2002 report published by the United Nations Human Development Programme and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, “The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-ﬁfth the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa'moun's time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.” By contrast, right now, most Arab and Muslim societies already have access to a wide array of Western pop-cultural products, just like those promoted by the State Department, via radio, DVDs, and the Internet.
Will stories about Americans dating in the dark make the Arab and Muslim worlds feel listened to? More than likely, even with Hughes at its helm, American public diplomacy will still be grasping in the dark for a way out of the present anti-American moment.
Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.