Public diplomacy: Karen, we hardly knew ye

She’s listening

Within the US government, the job of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs — a position created for the primary purpose of managing the image of the US in the Muslim world — has morphed into the most impossible job in Washington. It chewed up predecessors, such as seasoned PR professional Charlotte Beers, who tried and failed to use Madison Avenue tactics to create a “brand America” strategy. After a personal appeal from President Bush to his longtime confidant Karen Hughes, the presidential aide who was widely credited (along with Karl Rove) with engineering both of George Bush’s election victories, she came out of early retirement in Austin to save the department from irrelevance. Lucky for him, Hughes relished the challenge.

To the surprise of many of those suspicious of her, she brought an immense curiosity about the Muslim world’s perspective and a sense of openness little seen in the Bush State Department. With an energy level matched by few within the Beltway, she engaged Muslims directly and opened herself up to criticism from all sides, notably from many neo-conservatives who thought that, by engaging with groups such as ISNA, she was at best barking up the wrong tree. Instead, she terminated ineffectual programs and created ambitious new ones, helping recruit Muslim Americans to join the effort.

For this new direction, she certainly deserves credit. But as Hughes exits the office, having tendered her resignation effective this December, it is difficult to see how she has been any more successful than her predecessors in halting the decline in negative perceptions of the US among Muslims worldwide, perceptions which have dropped support to single digits even among ostensible US allies such as Turkey.

She began her tenure by reaching out to Muslim Americans in what she called “listening mode,” open to hearing blunt criticism of US policy and leaving no subject off the table. Within a week of starting her new job, she assembled a group of skeptical Muslims, including myself, to get some advice.”You may be in charge of changing perspective on America abroad,” I remember telling her, “but you can’t do anything about US foreign policy itself, which is the root of the problem.” “Don’t think I can’t have impact on foreign policy,” replied an unfazed Hughes. “I talk to the President nearly every day.” It was this kind of can-do attitude that piqued the interest of many of us, in spite of our wariness.

However, a substantive change in US foreign policy is only possible when enough of the administration’s inner circle feel that a shift in current policy is necessary and advise accordingly. In the end, Hughes marched in lock step with the President on the rationale for the Iraq war, keeping “on message” regarding the long-term benefit that might arise from the current destabilization. Still, while Hughes was unwilling or unable to change the grander (and more troublesome) foreign policy initiatives — the Iraq war, stagnant progress on the Israel/Palestine front — she did make important progress beneficial to Muslims in two important areas.

First, she created a space in government where Muslim Americans could freely participate (without a political litmus test) in efforts to bridge the gap between America and the Muslim world. Second, she pried open the door – shut for security reasons for years after 9/11 – for students from the Muslim world to study in America and appreciate its culture firsthand. She killed overtly propagandistic programs such as the youth-oriented Arabic language Hi Magazine and sent US Muslims on tours of the Muslim world to showcase their relative prosperity and freedom (including, in some cases, the freedom to criticize US foreign policy in a civil manner).

Muslim leaders, while uneasy towards US government overtures in the wake of security crackdowns after 9/11, took Hughes at her word and offered advice and counsel. People such as ISNA President Ingrid Mattson (whom Hughes singled out for honor in a State Department iftar dinner in 2006), scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute, and entertainers such as Native Deen, all offered their assistance when asked to do so, regardless of personal differences towards the current administration. Ordinary Muslims from all walks of life volunteered to travel around the world at the department’s request to speak about Muslim life in America.

But while heartfelt critiques were certainly made amidst the dialogue, they made little difference in US policy (with the exception of challenging the government’s use of words like “Islamofascism”, which Hughes proudly claims to have nipped in the bud). And while sending Muslim Americans overseas is a good way to promote America as an emigration destination for Muslims abroad, it does little to mollify critics of the American presence in the Muslim world — a world which, more often than not, only seeks the same freedoms Americans enjoy.

And so, as Hughes leaves office, we find ourselves back where we started. Perhaps expectations should have been managed better from the beginning, by defining the job not in terms of firefighting, but rather in ceasing to add fuel to existing conflicts. Maybe the department’s role should be been less about managing America’s image and more about aggregating information at a “hearts and minds” level that could be used in policymaking, where decisions of consequence are first made.

As it stands now, if someone as energetic, resourceful, and well-intentioned as Karen Hughes couldn’t make a dent in the problem, perhaps nobody can. Yet the office still exists and should continue working on projects that are showing some success in creating an open dialogue between America and Muslims globally. As long as there are opportunities to create bridges of understanding between the two vis-a-vis Muslim Americans – even if seeing eye-to-eye is a distant goal – there are scores of us who will gladly continue to help.

Still, it would have been nice to get some movement on that policy thing.

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com


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