By William Fisher
A senior State Department official who resigned in 2003 to protest the American invasion of Iraq is charging that the public diplomacy efforts of Bush confidante Karen Hughes have been in place for many years, are failing to win hearts and minds overseas, and are causing US diplomats to “feel like second-class citizens at the State Department.”
John Brown, now a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, tells Truthout he finds much of the recent praise afforded Ms. Hughes misinformed and exaggerated.
For example, Brown points out that much of America’s best public diplomacy work has always been carried out by diplomats in US Embassies around the world. But today, he says, “public diplomacy officers overseas feel hampered by security requirements that limit their ability to be in touch and communicate with local audiences. Some of these security concerns may be legitimate, but they can be Washington-driven rather than determined by a real assessment of the local situation.”
Brown adds, “PD work is often not taken as seriously as it should by other elements in the Embassy ‘country team’ that consider outreach to host-country nationals in media, academic, and artistic circles, only a secondary aspect of a US diplomatic mission's work, such as reporting to Washington or assistance to American citizens overseas.”
His recommendation: “Bureaucratically, PD officers overseas should be given far greater flexibility and budgets to carry out their work. Ms. Hughes likes to announce one ‘new initiative’ after another that make her and the administration look good (she thinks), but what could make a difference (short of Bush policy changes, which of course is the most important factor in making US PD respectable) is the empowerment of our PD diplomats abroad so that they truly can ‘engage, inform and influence’ the best and the brightest in the countries where they are posted.”
Brown, a Princeton PhD, joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. His diplomatic work focused on press and cultural affairs.
In 2003, Brown resigned from the State Department to protest the Iraq invasion. He wrote to then Secretary of State Colin Powell: “I cannot in good conscience support President Bush's war plans against Iraq." He said the President “has failed to explain clearly why our brave men and women in uniform should be ready to sacrifice their lives in a war on Iraq at this time; to lay out the full ramifications of this war, including the extent of innocent civilian casualties; to specify the economic costs of the war for ordinary Americans; to clarify how the war would help rid the world of terror; to take international public opinion against the war into serious consideration.”
“Throughout the globe,” he wrote, “the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century.”
Brown takes issue with a number of recent assessments of Ms. Hughes’s work.
For example, he disagrees with the claim of foreign affairs analyst Nicholas Kralev who, writing in the Washington Times, said Hughes was “more aware of the nuances of US foreign policy, was strongly supportive of educational exchanges, had incorporated public diplomacy into the ‘consciousness’ of the State Department, and was streamlining the bureaucracy ‘to handle public diplomacy issues more efficiently’.”
On the contrary, Brown asserts, public diplomacy experts in US embassies abroad have been made to “feel like second-class citizens at the State Department.”
Similarly, Brown questions why Hughes is being credited with increasing foreign exchange programs. “Educational exchanges have existed for decades. And Bush's policies -- particularly in Iraq -- make Hughes's PD efforts appear hypocritical and propagandistic to overseas audiences. Put simply, in Iraq and elsewhere, we do not practice what we preach in our PD declarations about the need for mutual understanding, communication, and ‘listening to others’."
He says, “It's become quite fashionable to compare 21st century America with the Roman Empire. Like the Romans or not, at least they could not be accused of hypocrisy. They came, they saw, they conquered -- without blabbing on and on about the need for ‘mutual understanding’."
Hughes, a former Texas TV reporter and a key Bush Administration insider, was appointed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 2005.
She said recently, “For the first time, public diplomacy was recognized as a national security priority, and we got $50 million in the emergency supplemental. … we were able to show from our initial survey data that 87% of participants in our programs have a better understanding of the United States and 73% have more favorable attitudes toward our country as a result of their participation. …So we've really expanded our exchange programs. When I came, the year before I arrived, we had 27,000 people participate. This year we'll have almost 40,000. And I'm working on a budget where we're hoping to [increase participants] to more than 50,000. I've been an advocate for increasing the public diplomacy budget, and it has increased substantially since I've been here, from $677 million to $845 million…Last year we issued a record number of student visas, I think 591,000.”
Brown says, “I would love for someone with access to the proper records to check on the accuracy of these statistics.”
He also takes issue with William Rugh, who was ambassador to Yemen
from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995. Writing in the Baltimore Sun last month, Rugh said Hughes had been unfairly criticized and asserted she was making “quiet progress.”
"First, the undersecretary of state does not control the half of the traditional public diplomacy budget that goes for broadcasting (it is >under an independent board) or the Pentagon's huge information effort in Iraq and elsewhere.
“Second, 'public diplomacy' is not a panacea. Misinformation is widespread in
this world of 24/7 global chatter, and public diplomacy can help bring facts and reasoning into the ongoing discussion. But it alone cannot remake America's image abroad -- an image that is formed primarily by our policies and actions.
“Third, public diplomacy has not recovered from a decade of neglect when we
won the Cold War and Washington decided it was no longer necessary.
“The fourth reason criticism of Ms. Hughes is unfair is that there are no quick fixes. Public diplomacy includes long-term instruments such as education as well as explanations of policy, and she has taken important steps that will bear fruit in the long run.”
Brown charges that Rugh exaggerates Hughes's accomplishments. “He takes her completely at face value, without asking about her role (for example) in the
White House Iraq Group (WHIG) that led the country into war. He overlooks
many of her missteps, such as her disastrous ‘listening tour’ soon after she assumed her position.”
He asks, “If she is such a close confidante of the President, why hasn't she been able to solve some of the PD problems which (Rugh claims) she inherited?”
He also notes that the so-called “soft-power” programs Ms. Hughes claims credit for have existed for decades. “Whatever budgetary increases she has gotten for them are minimal, if you can trust her statistics. Just compare them with what the Pentagon gets to pay for its bases and golf courses.”
Brown contends that “it is Bush’s policies, not Hughes-propaganda masquerading as educational/cultural exchanges, that have the most impact on what foreign publics think about the United States. And these policies, widely considered overseas as unilateral and militaristic, show a near-total disregard for the opinions of mankind.”
He notes that “Ms. Hughes often speaks of the importance of the ‘diplomacy of deeds’. And indeed, the deeds of this administration tell the world far more about the current US regime than whatever public-diplomacy programs spinstress
Karen claims credit for. What are these deeds? A senseless war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib -- just to name a few of the Bush atrocities that appall -- and kill -- our fellow human beings.”
The bottom line for Brown: “Never mind the polls that show America is more unpopular overseas than ever. After all, in the Bush world they create their own reality, and who cares about aliens who happen to share this planet with us Americans?”