The 'Painfully Clueless Karen Hughes'

If all the world’s a stage, then what’s playing on it is America as morality play. And the painfully clueless Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who visited the Middle East last week to promote what is now called “public diplomacy” – the use of culture to foster goodwill toward the U.S. – is the new drama director.

To their credit, Americans care what people around the world think of them, and are always anxious to limit or reverse the erosion of trust in their country by the international community. To that extent, they are unique. Big powers in history, from imperial Rome to colonial Britain, didn’t give two-pence what their colonized communities, the so-called “subjugated peoples,” thought of them. Military and economic might alone, they argued, would shape world opinion.

The problem here is not American popular culture – which is beloved and emulated everywhere – or even American political culture, imbued with the richest ideals of freedom, democracy, and individual rights, ideas embraced by a people who, since 1776, have valued diversity and openness in their lives, and continue to expect candor and accountability from their elected officials.

Rather, the problem is American foreign policy, which remains, where it is not bellicose, overtly and unabashedly moralistic in tone. Unless you live like us, they seem to be saying, yours is an inferior species of social formation.

Thus, Americans refuse to believe, say, Saudi Arabians, Egyptians and Indonesians when these folks explain that they are not advancing the notion that the American system is bad, just that it is bad for, or incompatible with, their own culture and traditions.

This missionary point of view, to Americanize the world, as it were, has its roots in American history and comes straight out of the Puritan ethic. The paradigm of these folks was derived from world view that not only should Americans spurn a corrupt Europe, but that they had a “manifest destiny” in the New World, the right to “overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

This worldview, theological in the extreme, has remained a key part of the American archetype, and has been taken up by generations of political leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush.

After World War I, for example, Wilson claimed that the U.S. had “seen visions that other nations have not seen,” and Bush, on the eve of war in Iraq, proclaimed that “we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country … the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”

Alas, America’s strategy for global primacy, not to mention its penchant for wanting to transform other societies in its image, has not worked out well. The great power of the United States has been humbled by a relentless insurgency in an ancient land whose culture Americans only vaguely understand; its allies are weary of its unilateralist posture; its potential friends in the Middle East – and trust me on this one, there are a lot of these floating around – are alienated by hypocritical policies it adamantly pursues in Palestine; its enemies around the world have grown bolder; and when it talks about exporting “reform, human rights, democracy and open markets,” those people in the region who are meant to be their beneficiaries turn away in nauseated disbelief.

America is gigantic, and the mistakes it has made in recent years have been the same size, from its involvement in the civil war in Vietnam in the 1960s to its manic support of Israel all these years, from its backing of two-bit dictators around the world during the Cold War (otherwise known with regret these days as “stability at the cost of democracy”) to its invasion of Iraq three years ago. Enter Karen Hughes in her visit to the Middle East during the last week of September.

So what did President Bush’s public diplomacy guru end up doing there? What did America, through her, want to say to the people of the region? Search me!

Hughes, a former reporter for a local Texas television station and close confidante to Bush when he was governor of the state, is an improbable ambassador. She has little foreign policy experience and her pedestrian, at times vapid, responses to questions raised by people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed she knew precious little about the region’s social concerns and political preoccupations.

In Egypt, asked a question about the Muslim Brotherhood, she turned quizzically to an aide to help her out, since she presumably had not heard of the group, which has been active and vocal in Egyptian politics since the 1920s.

Charged with burnishing the U.S. image in the Muslim world, she only succeeded in projecting a syrupy sweet demeanor, using hokey lines like “I am a mom and I love kids,” or banal observations, about what goals Palestinians should pursue, like “they should have children and families.”

In Turkey, she gushed: “I love all kids, and I understand that is something I have in common with the Turkish people – that they love children.”

In Cairo, when she asked a group of college students how many of them had voted in the recent presidential election, only one hand shot up. The next day, she worked into her standard speech a heartwarming story about meeting someone who had participated in the first multiparty election in Egypt’s history.

She also repeatedly claimed, in an interview on Al-Jazeera, that President Bush was the first American leader to call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, ignorant as she was of the fact that President Bill Clinton worked tirelessly to achieve that goal in the last few months of his tenure in the White House. (Come to think of it, President Carter had called for a “Palestinian homeland” while in office.)

Let the record show that no one has identified the gushy Hughes as an “ugly American,” just an inane one.

The source of anti-American attitudes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and in Western Europe, is clearly not American culture or American values, but, as Edward P. Djereijan, a retired diplomat who had served as ambassador in Damascus, said in an interview last week, “It’s the policies, stupid.”

I for one see no contradiction between people around the world listening to John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, watching Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen, attending a production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” reading Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, and heck, yes, wearing Levis and eating Big Macs, and slamming President Bush for his foreign policies. Let’s face it, a lot of Americans do just that every day of the week.

Karen Hughes’ visit to the Middle East would not have merited a column here were it not for the egregious remarks she kept making, especially in Saudi Arabia, about how Hamas militants are essentially a bunch of terrorists and how when Israel hits at them, it is hitting back in retaliation. She said that right there, as a guest, in the heartland of our world.

Thanks, Karen, message master, communications guru and undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. You came to our part of the world to aim at the public’s heart, and you ended up hitting it in the stomach.

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