The numbers are not good. By every conceivable measure, the United States, which only six years ago was positively perceived and admired by many people around the world, is now almost universally disliked and frequently feared. The Pew Global Attitudes Project June 2006 polling reveals that even among America’s closest traditional allies in Europe, with the sole exception of Britain, the U.S. is everywhere perceived unfavorably. Only 23 percent of Spaniards viewed the U.S. positively, while in key Muslim ally Turkey only 12 percent did so. In every country polled by Pew save only Germany, U.S. involvement in Iraq is seen as a greater threat to world peace than Iran’s nuclear program. A Zogby poll conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates last year revealed that only 12 percent of their aggregate populations view the U.S. favorably. More disturbingly, polling data from several sources is also indicating that many foreigners are beginning to regard the American people, not just U.S. foreign policy, as a part of the problem.
And it’s not only foreigners who perceive the Bush foreign policy in negative terms. A poll conducted last month by Foreign Policy magazine queried 100 American experts on terrorism and international relations. Two thirds of those polled said that the existence of a “central front in the war on terrorism” located in Iraq is largely a fiction. Three quarters asserted that the U.S. is losing the international struggle against terrorism and that American policy is making the world a more dangerous place. When asked to pick the world’s most threatening government, 9 percent selected the United States, including 14 percent of respondents who described themselves as “conservatives.”
Those Americans who have watched with concern as the world’s view of the United States deteriorated dramatically over the past six years are becoming increasingly convinced that the damage might be irreversible. A toxic brew of provincialism, jingoism, and sheer ignorance has come together to shape the Bush White House’s outlook on the world, a view that is unfortunately shared by many in Congress. There is a major disconnect in terms of Washington’s purely Manichean view of other countries and how the world looks at the U.S. in return. The “with us or against us” divide has poisoned the waters and has rendered compromise on many hitherto tractable issues nearly impossible. The United States is increasingly seen as an unprincipled schoolyard bully driven by narrow self-interest whose unpredictable behavior has long been tolerated but will never be embraced.
Future historians might well observe that the decline and fall of 21st century America was directly linked to the cynical and deliberate exploitation of the quite legitimate fear that followed the events of 9/11. America’s face to the rest of the world while dealing with the all too genuine threat posed by terrorism has been delegated to spin doctors for whom perception is everything and substance counts for little. Admittedly, the product that the public relations mavens have had to work with is not exactly in demand. It is difficult to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse even in the best of times, and American foreign policy, which has been hijacked by ideologues who have made even the most solid international relationships friable, is both reactionary and seriously adrift.
In a gentler time, public diplomacy was an aspect of foreign policy generally handled by the United States Information Agency, which engaged with the local media and attempted to correct misconceptions about U.S. policy or society. It was not perceived as a propaganda tool per se, and it was generally accepted that a prompt and judicious response to allegations based on misunderstandings or poor information would serve the United States admirably. It relied on personal connections with the local media and the establishment of a level of credibility between the embassy officer and the local reporter. The embassy officer also had considerable autonomy in the process and could take action to correct a mistake in the local media as soon as it appeared.
Under the current administration, much of that long-established framework has been discarded, however, and the emphasis has been to stop critical stories whenever possible, to tightly control the message, and to spin the content of the rebuttal to make it support a preconceived agenda. That agenda is to protect the Bush administration from any and all criticism, justified or not, reasonable or unreasonable, not to engage on the actual issues.
The latest spinmeister is the redoubtable Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, a Bush confidant and loyalist who accepted her mandate despite having no experience in foreign affairs or in dealing with foreigners. Predictably, she has been an unmitigated disaster. Her misstatements are legion and are rooted in a cultural insensitivity that is astonishing considering that she has an experienced staff that presumably carefully weighs and shapes her public utterances. She is the ugly American writ large in her assumption that her values and views are empowering for all peoples and must have currency throughout the world. They do not. Many Second- and Third-World women are quite content with their traditional lifestyles and are not necessarily interested in being able to drive or to become “soccer moms,” a distinction that apparently eludes poor Texas-centric Karen.
The intention to appoint Hughes to the State Department position was announced by President Bush on March 14, 2005. Her job was initially described in glowing terms as key to countering the anti-American sentiment that was growing worldwide and to support the “global war on terror,” but she oddly was allowed to take an extensive leave of absence before assuming the position, leaving the assignment vacant. Hughes described her absence as a much needed vacation to return to her roots in Texas and spend time with her family, but in reality she quickly became involved in the Texas senatorial campaign of John Cornyn as well as other state races and began a speaking tour at a reported $50,000 a pop to build up a substantial bank account before again becoming a government servant.
One of Hughes’ first moves after returning to Washington in September 2005 was to assert control and get the State Department “on message.” She shaped her agenda in militaristic terms, demanding “rapid response” and calling for the deployment of “SWAT teams.” All ambassadors overseas were advised that they could only speak publicly if they submitted their speeches for pre-approval by Hughes’s office. They would be allowed to speak in impromptu fashion but only if they adhered strictly to the talking points send out by her office, which would focus on the “democracy agenda” and the war on terror. “If they make statements based on something I sent them,” she declared, “they’re not going to be called on the carpet.” Speaking frankly about problems in Iraq or domestic issues like Hurricane Katrina was strictly forbidden.
Hughes quickly began to sell the White House’s snake oil through multinational trips, which were initially focused on Muslim countries. She called the trips “listening tours” in an apparent attempt to show that she was open to the ideas of foreign interlocutors. The first five-day-long “Innocents Abroad” trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey included 16 carefully selected American journalists who were expected to report on her successes with the foreign audiences. Unfortunately, it did not quite work out that way. The foreigners selected to meet Hughes, most of them women, were prescreened to make sure that they came from groups that were either known to be friendly to the U.S. or dependent on embassy funding. Hughes elaborated on several prepackaged themes in her meetings, expressing her regret that more Muslim clerics did not immediately and vocally condemn the 9/11 hijackers and also criticizing the lack of tolerance in the Muslim world. Neither talking point went down particularly well with the traditional, conservative audience, and both were generally perceived as being arrogant and culturally ignorant. They might have been crafted to appeal more in replay to an American audience through the gaggle of accompanying journalists and to show that the Bush administration was being proactive. Her frequent references to the Christian religion were especially maladroit as they touched on a particular hot button for Muslims concerned that the Bush policy of military pressure on a number of regimes is motivated by a desire to replace Islam with Christianity. Hughes also demonstrated a bad egocentric tendency to talk about herself as if she were part of the product being promoted, something that many culturally self-effacing audiences found off-putting and unseemly.
In first stop, Egypt, Hughes stressed to a skeptical audience the religiosity of the president and added that the U.S. Constitution includes the phrase “one nation under God,” which it does not. In Saudi Arabia, Hughes, repeatedly describing herself inappropriately and condescendingly as a “working mom,” urged a mostly silent group of fully veiled women to obtain the right to drive because the inability to operate a vehicle “negatively shaped the image of Saudi society” in the U.S. She also equated driving with “freedom.” In Turkey, Hughes lamely attempted to connect with her audience by saying “I love kids,” before being confronted by women troubled about the deaths brought about by the invasion of Iraq. She also heard concerns about America’s apparent intention to introduce democracy by force and explained somewhat confusingly that “to preserve the peace, sometimes my country believes that war is necessary.” It is not clear how that translated into Turkish.
Not much given to introspection or self-critique, Hughes predictably blamed her “listening tour” debacle on the local U.S. embassies, ordering some of her senior assistants to follow up with visits of their own to “shake up” the embassy staffs and demand a more aggressive promotion of the administration’s “message.” She even threatened to replace personnel, up to and including the ambassador level, if her demands were not met. This did not go down well with many career diplomats who, unlike Hughes, understood the local language and culture and felt they knew full well what could and could not be done in their host countries.
Hughes’ next “listening tour” was to Indonesia and Malaysia, minus the 16 accompanying journalists. In a testy press conference in Jakarta, she incorrectly stated that Saddam Hussein had gassed “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis” and was later confronted by an Indonesian student who rattled off a list of countries that the U.S. has recently invaded and then asked, “Who’s the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?”
Hughes has also made serious mistakes in her staffing decisions, which appear to be driven by loyalty rather than competence. She has an extremely large staff by State Department standards, an apparent reflection of her sense of entitlement as a White House protégé. Her decision in the summer of 2006 to circumvent the State Department’s assignment system to place a poorly qualified crony in a plum position in Europe was particularly insensitive. Hughes created a new position to head a rapidresponse/media reaction center in Europe that was to be placed in Brussels, a curious choice as the media in Belgium is largely concentrated on European Union and NATO issues and lacks the foreign policy awareness that drives the news in other capitals like Paris or London. It is quite possible that the venue was selected by the nominee, however. Diane Zeleny, a mid-level civil servant married to neocon backbencher Reuel Marc Gerecht, might have manipulated the process, as she had previously worked in Brussels as press officer for NATO and may have wanted to return there for reasons of her own. The State Department’s Foreign Service Association, not normally known for expressions of public outrage, complained that the appointment was never properly advertised so that others could apply for it, that it had violated all “personnel rules and standard practices,” and that it was a “precooked deal.” In late December, the appointment of Zeleny was overturned by the State Department’s director-general, though she will be allowed to stay in Brussels until the summer.
Recently, a mugged-by-reality Hughes has been somewhat more subdued and much less in the news, carefully selecting her audiences and apparently avoiding countries where she is likely to be confronted. Understanding finally that she cannot transform the world’s view of the United States while Washington persists in policies that are unpalatable to most people, her recent trips, no longer described as “listening tours,” have included China, the Philippines, Jordan, and Mexico. They are also less controversial in subject matter as she increasingly promotes women’s causes and talks about “inclusion,” though she continues to drop the occasional maladroit bomb. In a recent interview in Parade magazine, she referred to terrorists as a “death cult” that is “intolerant of others,” begging the question what an altruistic death cult would look like. Her solution to the killer cultists? “Say it’s not right to murder those who disagree.” In Jordan recently, Hughes encouraged more Arab women to go into business as a development that would “bring peace,” while in the Philippines she handed out sewing machines to poor girls. She has hired a “Digital Outreach Team” consisting of a small staff of Arabic-language-capable bloggers who post messages to counter allegations and disinformation being circulated on overseas Web sites, a program that she describes as successful based on the unlikely premise that the alleged militant bloggers have been “universally receptive” to the input from State Department employees. Hughes has also overseen the programming transition of ill-conceived, expensive, and spectacularly unsuccessful radio and television broadcasts in the Middle East through Radio Sawa, Radio Farda, and al-Hurra Television, all of which now emphasize entertainment rather than news. After all, entertainment is what it’s all about.