Although foreign policy experts disagree over whom and what is to blame for what they phrase as the rise of anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, there is a general consensus among policymakers that something must be done to reverse the trend.
Shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration hired Charlotte Beers, a former ad agency executive, to launch a new public-relations campaign designed to rehabilitate America’s image in the Muslim world.
A Pew Research poll showed that Beers’s Shared Values operation, which included television commercials depicting Muslim Americans in their daily lives, failed to win hearts and minds in the Muslim street.
The poll showed that negative attitudes of the US were on the rise in the Middle East several months after the Shared Values ads ran.
Three years later, President Bush has turned to Karen Hughes, one of his closest political advisers, to right the ship.
As the newly appointed undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department, Hughes will attempt to overhaul the administration’s PR strategy in a region critical to US national security.
As Bush’s former communications director, Hughes has long been a power player in Washington and is viewed by many to be a genius in media spin tactics. She was widely credited for honing the political message for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and worked in the White House for just over a year before returning to Texas to spend more time with her family.
Although Hughes lacks any previous experience with international diplomacy, many of her supporters and even some detractors say she possesses the innate political skills to succeed where her predecessors failed.
“I think Karen Hughes is the right person at the right time at the right place,” said Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, who headed a 2003 task force created to review US public diplomacy in the Middle East.
Djerejian said Hughes’s close ties to the president, combined with her successful communications background, made her a logical choice for the position.
“I think she is going to be the right pilot for putting together a new strategy,” he said.
Selling Iraq war
Despite her political credentials, not everyone is convinced Hughes is the ideal candidate to sell the Bush administration’s policies to a deeply sceptical Arab and Muslim public.
“If anyone can get the job done, it’s her,” said Laura Miller, editor of PR Watch, an investigative newsletter covering the public relations industry. “However, I think she has no credibility in the eyes of the world because she was so key to selling the war in Iraq.”
Karen Hughes played a central
As the White House communications director, Hughes developed a reputation for keeping the administration on message regardless of outside criticism or the changing political winds. The Bush team became known for almost never admitting a mistake.
Whether such tactics will be effective in the world of public diplomacy is unclear.
“Is Hughes the right person to try to make the Bush administration look good without giving an inch – yes,” Miller said.
Djerejian, however, said he believed Hughes will probably alter her approach based on the unique demands of the job.
“I think Karen understands the difference between domestic communications strategy and public diplomacy,” he said. “Listening is very important, as well as knowing the region.”
Middle East diplomacy?
Although a spokeswoman from the State Department said Hughes would not be doing interviews until she had settled into the job, Hughes indicated during her July confirmation hearing that listening would be a priority during her tenure.
“I plan to travel and reach out to both citizens and leaders of other countries, and I plan to mobilise our government to do more listening,” she said.
Critics of the administration’s previous attempts at public diplomacy in the Middle East said the strategy focused too much on slick marketing techniques and too little on personal engagement and knowledge of the region.
Djerejian, who chaired the advisory group that released a report advocating a new approach to public diplomacy, said the US needed “less television commercials and more face-to-face diplomacy”.
Widespread bitterness in the Arab and Muslim world over US actions in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will present Hughes with significant challenges.
Rather than trying to persuade the entire region that US policies are beneficial, the administration should focus on a more concentrated objective, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington thinktank.
“If you say, ‘Let’s convince the Arab world that the US position is right,’ I don’t think you get very far,” Alterman said. “They have to define the goals in a much more precise way. They need to have more targeted messages to smaller groups.”
Hughes hopes to undertake
Some Middle East experts said the method of American public diplomacy matters little if the policies behind it are rejected.
The Bush administration, however, has made it clear it does not intend to reverse course on major issues in exchange for greater acceptance in the region.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear that the US would not “change policy because it’s unpopular”.
Although Rice said Hughes would be “very much a part of our policymaking process” and would play an important role in “helping us to see how certain policies will be seen”, some issues go beyond the value of communications.
“Public diplomacy isn’t going to help us with the fact that there’s still some hard problems that we’re going to have to deal with,” Rice said.
Nevertheless, the appointment of someone with Hughes’ political stature suggests the administration plans to incorporate greater public diplomacy into its efforts to defeat terrorism.
“It signals that they’re seeing [the war on terrorism] not just as a military conflict,” Miller said. “At this point everyone seems to agree that anti-American sentiment is something we need to address.”