A few years ago, I participated in a workshop taught by a well-known marketing guru who guaranteed in a brochure that after a few sessions with him “you’ll be even able to sell ice to Eskimos, sand to Bedouins, and condoms to eunuchs.” I suppose that if an updated brochure were issued in late 2005, in the fifth year of the presidency of George W. Bush and at a time when according to the Pew Research Center “anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history,” the celebrated PR whiz-kid would add to his marketing mission-impossible list the selling of a very unappealing product—the Bush administration’s foreign policy, AKA Democratic Empire—to an unreceptive global target audience that includes Eskimos (“Let’s make the North Pole safe for democracy”), Bedouins (“From the guys who brought you Lawrence of Arabia: won’t you buy a used camel from Bush?”), and perhaps even a few eunuchs.
Enter Karen Hughes, our new global PR czarina, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. After reading the press coverage of her tragicomic odyssey among the believers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia—perhaps best described as “My Travels with Texas Karen the Infidel in the Lands of Ishmael”—one can assume that the only way the geniuses at Foggy Bottom could have turned that trip into more of a disaster for the American brand name would have been to choose Ray Stevens’s 1962 hit, “Ahab the Arab” as Madame Ambassador Hughes’s theme song for her Mideast excursion, which was billed as a “listening tour.” “Let me tell you about Ahab the Arab, the sheik of the burning sand. … He wore a big ol’ turban wrapped around his head. … he’d jump on his camel named Clyde, and ride”
Even without Ahab the Arab and Clyde the Camel to accompany her, the voyages of America’s top public diplomat to the Middle East and Southeast Asia turned into major media fiascos that will probably be taught one day in how-not-to-sell-your-product marketing classes or at least recalled as another of those what-were-they-thinking Washington mysteries.
Hughes pledged to a group of Saudi women that “I have a dream” that one day they would drive cars. They responded with “frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn,” and by the way, what about the Israeli repression of the Palestinians? She met with an audience of Turkish women—hand-picked by a supposedly “pro-American” outfit—who questioned the credibility of American commitment to democracy and women’s rights while the U.S. was occupying Iraq and backing the Kurds. (Not unlike their male compatriots, Turkish women don’t like Kurds.) And then there was that blunder in Jakarta, Indonesia, where the president’s old political confidante, following in the footsteps of George “Yellowcake” Bush, Dick “Last Throes” Cheney, Condoleezza “Mushroom Cloud” Rice, and George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, umm … misspoke, stating twice that Saddam Hussein gassed to death “hundreds of thousands” of his people. (About 5,000 Iraqis are believed to have been gassed by Saddam at a time when he was receiving aid from Washington in his war against Iran. Never mind…)
Some critics have proposed that Hughes was chosen for a job for which she isn’t qualified because she is a political crony of Bush. “W. thinks so highly of Ms. Hughes, his longtime Texas political nanny, spinner, speechwriter and ghostwriter, that he put his Lima Green Bean, as he called her when she prodded him about the environment, in charge of the critical effort to salvage America’s horrendous image in the Islamic world—even though what she knows about Islam could fit in a lima green bean,” suggested New York Times columnist and Bush critic Maureen Dowd. But you’ve got to give this tough lady from Texas some credit. She was trying very, very hard: blowing kisses to small groups of “fans” in the streets of Cairo selected in advance by the Egyptian Mukhbarrat; giving the high-five to bewildered cute little Turkish kids and telling them how Uncle George in Washington really, really loves them; attempting to bond (“I’m a working mom”) with Turkish housewives; all the while assuring the Muslims that her boss is a Man of God and projecting that all-American persona of a cheerleader from the University of Houston who was on a mission to recruit veiled Muslim girls for the winning U.S. team.
But what can you really do to help improve America’s battered image in the most populous Muslim nation on earth when your three-day tour of Indonesia comes just as television images are showing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burning the corpses of Taliban fighters? “Your policies are creating hostilities among Muslims,” Indonesian student Lailatul Qadar told Hughes after her fiery, and inaccurate, Saddam-is-Hitler address. “It’s Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and maybe it’s going to be in Indonesia, I don’t know. Who’s the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?”
Indeed, as the famed marketing guru made clear in his workshop, “You can’t sell a soap that doesn’t wash.” Or to apply that overused cliché, “It’s the policy, stupid.” Sworn in early in September, Hughes became the latest top official charged with repairing a U.S. image abroad soured by the war in Iraq and complaints in Europe and the Middle East over Bush’s policies and leadership. In fact, she is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this position since 9/11—more proof that what the White House needs is not another Madison Avenue PR executive or K Street spinmeister. Hughes’s predecessors—Charlotte Beers, a successful advertising hand who helped produce a pathetic propaganda film targeted at Muslim audiences, and Margaret Tutwiler, Secretary of State James Baker’s impressive spokeswoman, were driven out of office not because they couldn’t get a handle on the mechanisms of public diplomacy as a way of fostering goodwill toward the United States and its culture and values. “The problem here is not American popular culture—beloved and emulated everywhere—or even American political culture, imbued with the richest ideas about freedom, democracy, and individual rights,” wrote Arab columnist Fawaz Turki about Hughes’s tour of the Middle East. “The problem rather is American foreign policy, that remains, where it is not bellicose, overtly and unabashedly moralistic in tone,” he stressed, adding, “Let the record show that no one has identified the gushy Hughes as an ‘ugly American,’ just an inane one.” To put it differently, the fault, dear President Bush, does not lie in the American people or even in our “public diplomacy” and its managers, but in your disastrous Middle East diplomacy. “What the United States should be doing is changing policy, not dressing it up to look better,” is the way Cairo’s Al-Ahram put it.
But President Bush had already concluded long ago that they hate us in the Middle East and in other parts of the world because of “who we are”—and not because of what we do. Forget about the bloody occupation of Iraq, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, or the support for the corrupt Arab regimes. And let’s not dwell on Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or Intifada II. It’s all the fault of Al Jazeera that keeps showing those “anti-American” images. Let’s just have a good spinning a la Karl Rove to counter those images with great “pro-American” newsbites, visuals, and catchy slogans. Hey, we could even try to plant an enterprising journalist searching for the truth, Judith Miller-style, at Al Jazeera.
This is an approach that has been advanced on a global scale by a White House that acted as though the war in Iraq were “a public relations problem first and a military problem second,” as Time columnist Joe Klein put it. It assumes that if the administration was so successful in convincing Joe Blow in Peoria that Saddam was behind 9/11 and was planning to nuke Cincinnati, there is no reason that the administration can’t also make Ahab the Arab believe that the Bushies want to bring freedom to the Middle East and peace to the Holy Land. All you need is not to deviate from a consistent message that you repeat several times a day like a parrot on crack: Democracy! Democracy! Democracy! Eventually those guys in the Middle East will come to their senses and figure out that American intentions are good and that the country’s commitment to spreading democracy is not merely a hypocritical justification for getting rid of regimes that President Bush and The Weekly Standard dislike.
There are no signs that President Bush’s public diplomacy is helping win the hearts and minds of either the elites or the publics in the Middle East —or for that matter in most parts of the world, including among traditional American allies in Canada and Western Europe. If anything, the discrepancy between the bombastic and misleading American message and the reality of U.S. policies on the ground in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and elsewhere only helps fuel more anti-Americanism. This discrepancy between the neocon propaganda and the outcome of Bush’s foreign policy is also responsible for the dramatic erosion in domestic public support for U.S. policies in Iraq as more and more Americans, including Joe Blow, seem to be deserting the faith-based community in favor of the reality-based one.
Ironically, that was the process that led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist movement, which had been led for several decades by very sophisticated and talented propaganda masters who would have made the Hugheses, the Roves, and the Kristols of Washington look like amateurs. Like the current neocon crew that drives American foreign policy, the Communist spinmeisters were confident that all that was necessary to maintain international and domestic support was to perfect the medium and massage the message. At the same time, American public diplomacy during the Cold War was much less ambitious and relied mostly on conveying the powerful and attractive reality of America’s society, economy, and culture to the world. That was the kind of American brand—innovators that bring you iPods, not eunuchs who build and promote empires—that helped the United States to win the Cold War.
Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.