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August 10, 2006

Karen Hughes is Missing
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Is somebody going to file a missing person report on Karen Hughes? If any Democracy Arsenal readers know of her whereabouts, please email me immediately. This, I wish to tell you, is of the greatest importance.

It is unfortunate, tragic even, but Ms Hughes has been missing in action since July 13. But now of all times, you ask in frustration? 

Well, the State Department’s got to get its act together. Actually, never mind that. It’s too late. There is nothing quite left to salvage. Condoleezza Rice appears intent on saying the most bizarrely inappropriate things to already skeptical international audiences. As Arianna Huffington observed, it’s not exactly the best idea to compare war to labor contractions. Stop talking about the “new Middle East” for God’s sake! If this is the “new” Middle East, then I think I’ll have to take the “old” one, thank you. Condi is doing what no brave soul before her had ever been able to do – make Brent Scrowcroft look like a genius. This is problematic because Scrowcroft is not a genius. “Constructive instability” or “fifty years of perpetual peace”? This is what we’ve been reduced to. Republicans seem capable of only two responses to foreign policy debacles: rummy, bluster and butt-kicking and…ummm…the dank grayness of realpolitik. Yuggh….well, we – the brave purveyors of democracy’s arsenal – reject both.

If this nonsense is going to continue, then one has to wonder what the point of having an Office of Public Diplomacy (drastically underfunded anyway) is in the first place.

I can’t remember the last time I heard an Egyptian say something good about America (praise for George Clooney doesn’t count). This gets tiresome after awhile. So, I’ve downgraded my expectations and now I shoot for more realistic objectives. Now, during heated discussions in the dusty, sprawling metropolis we call Cairo, I consider it a success when I convince the other person that America is not evil. Usually I do this by repeating the name Bill Clinton over and over again, no less than twenty times. It also helps to mention that we saved Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims from genocide and that, contrary to popular belief, Kosovo does not have any oil. Well, I may not be a public diplomacy machine, but I do what I can. One small step at a time. But odes to Clinton, however appropriate, do not exactly bear the makings of a successful, long-term public diplomacy campaign. In any case, that (Clinton) was then, this (Bush) is now.


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Not to burst anyone's bubble here, but the dismantling of America's institutional public diplomacy machinery was largely accomplished on Bill Clinton's watch. For good measure the diminution of State and the exaltation of the Pentagon in the conduct of foreign relations were largely products of the Clinton administration too.

Of course, it wasn't his fault. Under what appears to be a modern American tradition of only sending mama's boys to the White House, no President is ever to blame for anything according to his supporters. He just happened to be President at the time.

We can all agree, I'm sure, that the PR operation is greatly constrained by what it has to work with. If what the United States, for instance, backs Israel entirely as it sets about destroying much of Lebanon's infrastructure, that's hard for even someone more adept than Karen Hughes to spin.

But still, notice that Hamid did have talking points, and that they were supplied by what Clinton did in the former Yugoslavia. And that it was what Bush has done in Iraq and now Lebanon that put her into her defensive crouch.

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