By William Fisher
America’s newest public diplomacy czarina, Karen Hughes, is in dangerous denial and needs professional help.
She believes that how we treat prisoners in the ‘global war on terror’ is unlikely to have a serious adverse affect on how people think of the United States.
Ms. Hughes, longtime Bush confidante and now Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, told the House of Representatives International Relations Committee that the United States treats detainees humanely and in compliance with US laws and values.
In response to a question from Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, she added, "We were sickened as the rest of the world was by the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Democracies are not perfect, but we do hold people responsible."
She was, of course, referring to the convictions of a number of low-level enlisted personnel and reprimands issued to a few higher-ranking officers. And she felt compelled to tell the Committee about the good food and the Korans at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
One of the Congressmen reminded Ms. Hughes that the people of the Arab Street are smart – they know when they’re being conned. They should; they’ve been being conned for years by their own repressive and authoritarian governments. And, despite the self-serving propaganda of government-owned media, they also know that their governments rarely hold anyone responsible or accountable for mistreating prisoners, much less sending them to jail.
But this is a phony comparison. We are not supposed to be them. We are supposed to be us. We are supposed to act to a higher standard.
It should not come as a surprise to Karen Hughes that, thanks largely to the Internet, an awful lot of people in the Middle East and elsewhere know that the Justice Department lawyer, Jay Bybee, who wrote the now-famous memo justifying torture, got promoted to a lifetime appointment as a Federal judge. Or that then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who sold that memo to President Bush, was elevated to Attorney General of the United States. Or that some of the more egregious prisoner interrogation practices were approved by none other than our Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Or that others were okayed by General Ricardo Sanchez, our top Army field commander in Iraq, who is now awaiting his fourth star. Or that General Geoffrey Miller, our commandant at Guantanamo, was sent to Iraq to “migrate” GITMO’s interrogation methods to Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan – and that a top Army general overruled a military investigator’s recommendation that he be reprimanded. Or that Vice President Dick Cheney has been lobbying Congress to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from Senator John McCain’s anti-torture proposal. Or that the Bush Administration will neither confirm nor deny press reports that the United States runs a network of ‘black site’ prisons in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
When people have access to that kind of information, it gets harder and harder to con them.
Yet the best Congress could get from Ms. Hughes was that “We heard a lot more about the crimes than about the punishment” and the assertion that “We treat people humanely” and that getting them to understand that was “a challenge”.
It would be a challenge even if we told the truth – unvarnished and un-politicized. But if we continue to deny that what happened really happened, then the millions we spend on so-called Public Diplomacy will be a shameless waste.
Furthermore, the impact is not only on foreigners. What our country does affects Americans as well.
Nobody has made that case more poignantly than David Ignatius, the columnist for the Washington Post. Here’s what he wrote just before Thanksgiving:
“When I lived abroad, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It was a
chance to scrounge up a turkey, gather foreign and American friends, and
celebrate what America represented to the world. I liked to give a sentimental
toast when the turkey arrived at the table, and more than once I had my foreign
guests in tears. They loved the American dream as much as I did. I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years.
“The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas -- it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others.
“I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive. How do you deny the reality of Abu Ghraib, they ask, when the vice president of the United States is actively lobbying against rules that would ban torture? Of all the reversals the United States has suffered in recent years, this may be the worst.
“We are slowly shredding the fabric that defines what it means to be an American.”
David’s dilemma has particular resonance for me. In more than twenty years of managing programs abroad for the U.S. aid agency and the State Department – including many Thanksgivings in the company of non-Americans – I heard many criticisms of my country – not its people but its policies. In Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, people talked to me about America’s too-cozy relationships with kings and other authoritarian leaders and about our support for Israel and their cruel treatment of Palestinians. In Latin America, they reminded me of CIA-supported death squads and of our support for ruthless dictators. In Africa, I heard about our own country’s history of racial injustice.
But I was always able to explain and often to defend my country’s actions, beginning by acknowledging the truth of much of what I was hearing. In the process, I always felt I was able to make a small contribution to what Mark Brzezinksi recently called America’s “credibility as a standard-setter for human rights and the rule of law.”
Making that small contribution today is a lot tougher. Because our Public Diplomacy seems to begin – and end – with denial. Which turns our Public Diplomacy into Party-in-Power-Diplomacy. I can’t think of a quicker way to kill off The American Dream altogether.
Perhaps I’m simply being naïve, but I don’t want my country’s story told by either Democrats or Republicans. I want it told by Americans. And I want it told straight – not spun.
There are parts of our Public Diplomacy efforts that still work. Exchange programs for students, business people and scholars. And the Voice of America, which does a pretty good job of clearly labeling news and opinion and separating fact from spin. These programs existed long before the ascendancy of Karen Hughes. I’m happy to know she supports expanding them.
But I think it’s time to question whether public diplomacy should be the exclusive province of government at all. Maybe there are better models. PBS, our Public Broadcasting System (pre-Kenneth Tomlinson) comes to mind. So does the 9/11 Commission.
In both cases, Congress provides the money, but – with a few lamentable lapses – keeps its hands off the execution. It transfers responsibility from the party in power to the people in power.
If you believe in The People, this may be a good time to think about empowering them to keep The American Dream alive.