Some months ago in these pages (see March 20, 2005 - Just What Are We Selling?) there was an extended discussion of the announcement that former Bush political advisor and communications director, and former Texas television newswoman, Karen Hughes, had been appointed to be our new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, with the mandate to sell "Brand America" to the Muslim and Arab world. At the time, our friend Vince, who teaches marketing to MBA students in upstate New York at a prestigious business school, was skeptical. It seems his skepticism was not misplaced.
It took many months for this Hughes woman to assume her post, and now she has made her first trip to the region to pitch our brand. It didn't go well, and if this quote is correct, the Financial Times of London referred to her as "the new US minister of propaganda." That's cold.
So what happened?
She told the government there to be more careful about what they allow to be published and distributed: "US envoy Karen Hughes said on Tuesday Washington had privately discussed the issue of hate literature in American mosques with the Saudi government and asked for their help in getting rid it." Freedom of expression has its limits, of course.
She told a group of Saudi women they could be just like her and have the right to drive and wear pretty clothes and all that, and they were offended -
Hughes backpedaled and called the exchange refreshing.
US media are being disingenuous in portraying Arab women as unhappy and wronged, a close aide to President George W Bush on a PR visit to Saudi Arabia has been told. And it has come from the horse's mouth.
"We are happy. We want to show that image (but) the general image of the Arab woman in the American media is that she is not happy," a female student at Jeddah's private Dar al-Hekma University said during an encounter with US Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, drawing thunderous applause from colleagues.
"Your media is not really as fair as it used to be," came another voice from among the crowd of women clad in the black abaya who gathered in an amphitheatre on Tuesday to "exchange" views with the American visitor.
... "We can change, we are going to change, but not by force from outside," Leen Assassa, a 19-year-old student of interior design who holds dual Syrian and British nationality, later told AFP. She was covered from head to toe like her Saudi peers.
"America is trying to force its own opinion on us; the change will come from us," Assassa added.
The "image marketing approach" – a luncheon to make clear that we're really good folks in America - fell flat -
Well, Hughes doesn't have any authority to do that. She was treated with what might call "polite contempt" - she was of no significance.
Prominent Egyptians told the Bush administration's public relations guru yesterday that the United States can improve its image in the Middle East only by changing its policies.
The intellectuals and civil society leaders cited policies on Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what they said was inconsistent U.S. treatment of repressive Arab governments.
"You cannot separate them (image and policies). They have to go hand in hand ... You cannot sell an image while the policies are not there," said Mohamed Kamal, one of the guests at a lunch hosted by US Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes.
"If you really want to change the perception, you have to change the policies," added Lamees al-Hadidi, an independent journalist who also attended the meeting.
An Egyptian government newspaper also said that Hughes's mission to improve Washington's image abroad was bound to fail unless she could promise changes in US policy.
She tried to be nice but they brought up the war -
Sent to improve America's image in the Muslim world, President Bush's public relations chief stressed the need for better dialogue in her brief address Wednesday to Turkish women activists. What Karen Hughes got back was a barrage of criticism about the U.S. war in Iraq.
There is "no chance for America to make its image better ... while the war in Iraq is still going on (and) people are dying every day,'' Turkish activist Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal told journalists after meeting with Hughes at a museum in a medieval citadel looming over the modern city of Ankara.
Hughes - who concluded her Mideast tour Wednesday - admitted that "obviously we have a public relations challenge here in Turkey as we do in different places throughout the world.''
A public relations challenge?
Started in London in 1978 Asharq Al-Awsat is the world's most widely read Arab daily newspaper. It's printed simultaneously on four continents in twelve cities, and gives us this: The Karen Hughes Cleaning Service -
Poor Karen, caught between the impossible and the unfeasible, with the only tool at her disposal being "image marketing."
Even if the current US administration turned into to the world's largest cleaning company, it would still be unable to clean its reputation and improve its image in the Arab world. The mission is nearly impossible. I say this in light of the visit by Karen Hughes, the presidential adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs at the US State Department, or in clearer terms, George W. Bush's cleaner in the Arab region.
As a superpower, the United States has enough enemies and conflicts to keep it up at night. The minority, which believes that in politics no country can be totally good or wholly corrupt, finds itself unable to change reality.
... It might be that Hughes believes she will meet journalists and reveal to then what they do not know about her country, its policies, and its president. She might say he was the first to recognize a Palestinian state, strongly encourage democracy and push governments to grant opposition parties more freedom. Bush also insisted local Arab market reform.
The diplomat is deluding herself if she thinks anyone will believe her or show interest in the good deeds she will enumerate. All those she will meet are sure to repeat one word, "Occupation, occupation, occupation." Her planned meetings will end as they started. Hughes will face an important decision: repair the US's reputation, which is nearly impossible, or modify the country's policies, also almost unfeasible. …
Fred Kaplan over at SLATE.COM asks the obvious question - What on earth is she doing in the Middle East? -
Well, all she has is talk.
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. In a sense, this is par for the course when American officials meet with unofficial audiences abroad. 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").
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. To the extent that public diplomacy has worked at all, it has done so as a garnish.
The main course - a nation's ultimate image - is fashioned not by how it talks but by what it does.
And then there's the damned French, as in this from Peter Ford in the September 30 edition of The Christian Science Monitor -
There's great deal of detail at the link, but you get the idea. Some of this has to do with residual memories of seeing the suave and elegant Dominique de Villepin coolly oppose Powell at the UN a few years ago and suggest launching a preventative war in Iraq was not, at the time, a very reasonable idea - it was a bit gauche, if nothing else - one of those crude American solutions. And it didn't work out that well, did it? Part of this is style, which the French seems to have in most things. Part of it is attitude - the French may be haughty but they don't tell everyone to be just like them. They just assume that if you're intelligent, well-read, well-mannered, and at all sophisticated and carefully polite and formal, and enjoy the small pleasures of life more than power and wealth, well, you'll end up like them anyway. This of course, bugs the hell out of Americans.
Karen Hughes should be French - it would make her job easier.
As the US undersecretary of State for public diplomacy returns home from her first foreign trip burnishing America's image in the world, she might feel a touch of envy at the glowing international reputation that France enjoys, highlighted in a recent study by the Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
In the survey of people in 23 countries across the globe, a majority or plurality in 20 described France as exerting a positive influence on world affairs. The US, by comparison, is seen as having a negative impact by majorities in 15 countries.
"France is seen as a countervoice to the US," says Steven Kull, director of PIPA. "It becomes a rallying point for all those who don't want to follow America's lead." ...
Is it time for a makeover, as in "Extreme Makeover" and that sort of thing? On this side of the pond we're fond of quick slogans - you don't have to think or know much and you can repeat them over and over, put them on a bumper sticker, use them to slam discussion shut and all the rest. Last March Will Durst offered Thirty US Foreign Policy Extreme Makeover Slogans, which were an attempt at satire:
Too bad Karen Hughes didn't get the joke. It seems she's using some of them.
When Democracy Reigns, It Pours.
America: Just a Big Red White and Blue Teddy Bear With a Whole Lot of Guns.
Snap. Crackle. Pow. Thud.
Be All We Think You Should Be.
Tastes Great. Less Torture.
They Don't Call Us The GREAT Satan For Nothing.
America 2.0. Now With Improved Press Suppression.
What's So Bad About Bread And Circuses Anyway?
John Wayne: Not Just an Actor. A Way Of Life.
Don't Like Us? Get In Line.
I'd Walk A Mile For A Camel.
The US: The Ultimate Lying Machine.
Wouldn't You Really Rather Have A Republic?
Badges, We Don't Need No Stinking Badges.
Friendly Fire 'R Us.
Democracy: Just Do It.
You're In Good Hands With Our State.
You Keep the Sand, We'll Take the Oil.
Sometimes You Feel Like a Crazed Tyrannical Despot, Sometimes You Don't.
Freedom: Breakfast of Champions.
We're Everywhere You Want To Be. Deal With It.
The New Improved Low-Carb, Atkins-Friendly America.
Don't Leave Home Without It. No, Really. Stay in Your Homes.
I Can't Believe I Invaded The Whole Peninsula.
Autonomy: It's the Real Thing.
The Best Part Of Waking Up Is No Dead Bodies On Your Doorstep.
Aren't You Glad You Use a Free Market Economy? Don't You Wish Everybody Did?
Better Living Through Sovereignty.
Nobody Doesn't Like Britney Spears.