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Karen Hughes, Go Home!
Fred Kaplan is puzzled. Karen Hughes as Middle East emissary? Huh? Just like "Brownie," she's doing a helluva job:

Put the shoe on the other foot. Let's say some Muslim leader wanted to improve Americans' image of Islam. It's doubtful that he would send as his emissary a woman in a black chador who had spent no time in the United States, possessed no knowledge of our history or movies or pop music, and spoke no English beyond a heavily accented "Good morning." Yet this would be the clueless counterpart to Karen Hughes, with her lame attempts at bonding ("I'm a working mom") and her tin-eared assurances that President Bush is a man of God (you can almost hear the Muslim women thinking, "Yes, we know, that's why he's relaunched the Crusades").

...And now here is Hughes, once again a strong woman with no substantive experience on the subject, who was named to the job last March but put off coming to work so she could spend quality time with her son before he went off to college—a laudable priority for Hughes personally, but this indulgence by the president of the United States casts doubt on how urgently he regards the job's mission.

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a vast, independent public-diplomacy program in embassies all over the world—libraries, speakers' bureaus, concert tours by famous jazz musicians, and broadcasts of news and music on the Voice of America. Together, they conveyed an appealing image of a free, even boisterous, America in the face of an implacable, totalitarian Communist foe.

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes. But Karen Hughes would be spending her time more wisely trying to come up with some.

Perhaps the most effective personification of public diplomacy in recent times was Vladimir Posner, a Soviet newsman who in the early 1980s appeared frequently on Ted Koppel's Nightline to defend the invasion of Afghanistan. Posner was sophisticated, dapper, and spoke perfect, idiomatic, accent-free English. It turned out that he had been born and raised in the United States. His father was a Communist who immigrated to Moscow—taking along his family, including his teenage son—after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In short, Posner was the perfect man for the job.

So, that's another thing Karen Hughes should be doing—looking for the Muslim equivalent of our own Vladimir Posner.

But even smart public diplomacy can only go so far. When the Afghan invasion turned disastrous, Posner could not save it—or the Soviet Union. (By the way, he managed to rehabilitate himself nicely, emerging as a pro-reform TV game-show host in the Yeltsin era.) Similarly, when the Vietnam War came to dominate nearly everything about the world's perception of America, the USIA's cleverest image-molders could do nothing to stave off the damage.

To the extent that public diplomacy has worked at all, it has done so as a garnish. The main course—a nation's ultimate image—is fashioned not by how it talks but by what it does.

More on Hughes here, in a Guardian story by Sidney Blumenthal.

Posted by aalkon at September 30, 2005 8:39 AM

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His comparison of Hughes' trip and comments to Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad" is spot on.

Posted by: deja pseu at September 30, 2005 7:29 AM

> Perhaps the most effective personification of
> public diplomacy in recent times was Vladimir
> Posner...

Effective? Who was convinced? Who in the world who thinks the Soviet invasion worked out well for ANYONE? Is the unlamented USSR really supposed to be our model?

> In short, Posner was the perfect man for the
> job.

Posner was a dick. (His favorite sax player was Grover Washington Jr., strong evidence of the moral bankruptcy at the heart of a Soviet apparatchik.) So Donahue and his girls loved that fucker: This does not recommend him.

Posted by: Crid at September 30, 2005 9:08 AM

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