Thursday, August 04, 2005


By William Fisher

One of the major tasks likely to test Karen Hughes’ diplomatic skills most has nothing – and everything -- to do with winning ‘hearts and minds’ of people around the world.

It has to do with how effective she is in persuading the people who run America’s overseas broadcasting programs to accept her recommendations and suggestions.

We say persuading because, though Ms. Hughes is now President Bush’s top official in charge of public diplomacy, she has no direct authority over the radio and television broadcasts the administration considers so critical to reducing anti-American attitudes abroad, especially in the Middle East.

The best she can hope for is influence, based on her close relationship to the President and, of course, the budgeting process. In other words, a turf war!

The reason is that America’s overseas broadcasting programs are controlled by a government-funded but quasi-independent corporation called the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The BBG is chaired by Kenneth Tomlinson, the rumpled-loooking Bush friend who is currently causing a political tsunami by attempting to make the domestic public broadcasting system more ‘fair and balanced’, i.e. include more right-wing and less left-wing content. The Secretary of State is a member of the BBG, but votes only in case of a four-to-four deadlock.

The rest of the BBG -- four Democrats and four Republicans – have little experience in overseas ‘ public diplomacy’ broadcasting. Most made their fortunes in commercial domestic radio and television.

The Board, with a large staff and many millions in funding, has jurisdiction over a wide array of broadcast media: Voice of America (VOA), Alhurra, the Arabic-language satellite TV channel, Radio Sawa, radio beamed at the Middle East, Radio Farda, which broadcasts to Iran, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Radio and TV Martí, which broadcast to Cuba.

And they protect their turf zealously!

Yet it is noteworthy that in the 1,825 words of the opening statement she made at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the word ‘broadcasting’ was not uttered a single time. Not once.

Moreover, the mission she articulated had all the earmarks of a branding campaign for a consumer product – precisely the reason for the failure of Ms. Hughes’ two predecessors.

She laid out what she called “four strategic pillars -- the four "Es":

Engagement:” We must do much more to confront hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths, and get out the truth.”

Exchanges: “People who have the opportunity to come here learn for themselves that Americans are generous, hard-working people who value faith and family.”

Education: “Americans must educate ourselves to be better citizens of our world – learning different languages and learning more about other countries and cultures. And through English language training programs, we can give young people a valuable tool that helps them improve their own lives and learn more about our values.”

Empowerment: “We will create relationships with those who share our values and we will help amplify the voices of those who speak up for them.”

Ms. Hughes said little about the ‘how’ of it all, but not to worry. While there have been something like thirty major studies of U.S. public diplomacy programs during the Bush Administration alone, one of Hughes’ first acts as Undersecretary of State has been to request proposals for a $250,000 contract to carry out “a thorough and scientific study of how to address negative perceptions of the U.S., particularly in Muslim countries."

Having now been confirmed in her new post, Ms. Hughes will no doubt soon embark on the obligatory ‘charm school’ trip to far-off capitals. And, because she is a charming lady, she will probably get high marks.

But, then again, so did her predecessors.

Back home, she will have to confront not only the prospective turf war with the BBG, but an even more daunting reality: The critical juncture between George Bush’s foreign policy and the credibility of the messages we craft to send to the world.

Can anyone think of a job less doable?