Friday, December 14, 2007


By William Fisher

So George W. Bush’s Texas pal, Karen Hughes, is out as America’s chief shill to the world, soon to be replaced by a fellow named Jim Glassman.

It’s illuminating to understand how much these two have in common. As Karen Hughes took on the job of winning the hearts and minds of people overseas – particuarly in the Muslim world -- America’s reputation abroad was at an historic low. But those people were a lot savvier than the president ever acknowledged – or understood.

Quite accustomed to the unending propaganda spewed forth by the own governments, they knew all about the Bush Administration’s cynical marketing of post 9/11 fear of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, its mindless invasion and then incompetent occupation of Iraq, its failure to seriously address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, CIA renditions, “ghost” detainees and black sites, cozying up to such stalwart democrats as Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak – all played out against the backdrop of Washington misinformation, disinformation, spin, non-stop dissembling by the president and his loyal Bushies, the arrogance of American exceptionalism, the administration’s incessant saber-rattling, and its inability to ever own up to a mistake.

So what’s changed for Jim Glassman? Zilch!

Only the amount of money our country spends on “public diplomacy.” Yet despite the substantial increase in funding, every credible poll taken since 2003 tells us our policies are creating more jihadists than we’re killing. They tell us the “Arab Street” views the Annapolis conference as more a search for legacy than for Israeli-Palestinian peace. They tell us most Iraqis want us out of their country. They tell us folks are not watching our TV broadcasts or listening to our radio programs – or watching but not believing. They tell us our credibility abroad is lower than it’s ever been in the history of our country.

Hughes and Glassman have something else in common: Each is uniquely un-equipped to take on this arguably impossible job. Hughes, the president’s confidante and pal, was a Texas TV reporter, hardly a venue likely to lead to knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, cultural sensitivity to the byzantine ways of the Middle East.

Glassman, currently chairman of the scandously inept Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which is responsible for our government’s radio and television broadcasts to various parts of the world -- is best known for his prediction that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would reach 36,000 during the last bull market. A Resident Fellow at the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he is the founder and long-time "host" of Tech Central Station, a corporate-sponsored, Internet opinion site published by the Republican firm, the DCI Group. At AEI, he researches Social Security, economics, technology, politics, federal budget, interest rates, stock market, taxes, and education.

The sum total of his “Middle East experience”? He was a member of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, chaired by former Ambassador Edward Djerejian. That group’s report was highly critical of the state of public diplomacy and urged significant changes. Endorsed by many in Congress, the press and some elements of the administration, it was greeted with deafening silence by the White House.

Like Hughes, who played a major role in crafting the Administration’s pre-Iraq-invasion sales campaign to our citizens, Glassman brings a lot of baggage to his new job.

Here’s what he said in 2003: “….the anti-war protesters remain clueless. They're still planning their marches. Instead, they should be apologizing. Before the war, they told us that 500,000 Iraqis would be killed in Dresden-like bombing, that we would precipitate an eco-catastrophe by pushing Saddam to set fire to his oil wells, that millions of people would flee the country, that thousands of our own troops would be killed, that the Arab "street" would rise up, that terrorist attacks would resume ferociously on our homeland, that Iraqis would tenaciously resist our colonization of their land, that we would become bogged down in urban warfare, and on and on. In fact, none of that has happened. It has been a war unmatched in history, with relatively few civilian and allied casualties and the prime objectives - control of the capital and the destruction of Saddam's regime - achieved in only a few weeks. Conscientious opponents of the war should say they were wrong, wrong, wrong - on all counts.”

A year later, he persisted in promulgating the myth that simply doing a better job of carrying public diplomacy was the answer. “Recent events in Iraq, especially in Abu Ghraib prison, ” he said, “emphasize once more the dire need for serious, strategic and properly funded public diplomacy -- the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging and influencing people around the world.”

He added, “The United States is not making a serious effort to tell its story, to convince both its enemies and its friends of our cause -- to change minds.”

I suppose he was also just trying to “change minds” in his vigorous defense of the scientifically-challenged Republican Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, who said at the recent climate change conference in Bali, "Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Is this hope springing eternal? Or ideologically-driven wishful thinking? Or some kind of parallel reality?

When the world keeps telling you “it’s the policy, stupid,” what exactly is “serious, strategic and properly funded public diplomacy”?

We’ll probably never know because the cast of characters is the same and still in denial mode, the rhetoric is if anything more bellicose and more uninformed, and not even the cosmetics of the policies have changed.

Poor Mr. Glassman! He has only little more than a year to change all those millions of hearts and minds. So much to do and so little time to do it. Good luck!

Being America’s conveyor belt to hearts and minds during this Administration is, and always was, an arguably un-doable job. Karen Hughes’ performance only made it worse.

But not to George W. Bush. At Hughes’ farewell ceremony, the president said, "She is a consequential person. And I am confident that she has begun a cultural change throughout our State Department that will stand in good stead; it'll help the country."

But, as Dan Froomkin pointed out in the Washington Post, “Hughes wasn't hired to create cultural change inside the State Department; she was hired to improve America's image abroad. And she failed miserably at that task, at least in part because she failed to use her close relationship with Bush to get him to stop doing the things that made her job so impossible.”

There is a painful irony in the reality that the country that invented modern marketing fails to understand that a flawed product won’t sell for long, if at all. I’m told that Jim Glassman is a smart guy. But if he’s so smart, why did he take this thankless job in the first place?

At the end of the day, it won’t matter. The “product” just doesn’t work. So the U.S. will continue to fail in its public diplomacy campaigns until wiser, better informed, and perhaps more humble heads occupy the Oval Office.

Back in 1928, the man most regard as “the father of public relations,” Edward L. Bernays, coined the phrase “the engineering of consent.” By which he meant that, through effective propaganda, people could be persuaded to embrace ideas or actions based on deception.

Bernays was famously successful, but he lived in a different time and in a simpler world. My guess is that if he had the U.S. as a client today, he’d resign the account.