Can Karen Hughes change America’s image?

Charlie Wick, the ex-Hollywood agent and producer, took no end of guff when then-President Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the U.S. Information Agency. But Wick proved his critics wrong.

He had Reagan’s ear, he had energy and he understood the importance of communication in Reagan’s ideological struggle against communism’s “evil empire.”

Wick won huge increases in USIA’s budget, expanded exchange programs, launched a global satellite TV network and founded RadioMarti, which broadcasts to Cuba. Even jaded government bureaucrats ended up cheering his achievements.

Unfortunately, when the Cold War was won and it looked as though ideological struggle was passe, the Clinton administration helped right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., kill the USIA by folding it into the State Department, where public diplomacy was a backwater.

But now, the Charlie Wick spirit is back in the person of Karen Hughes, President Bush’s former White House communications director, who last year became undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Critics, as they did with Wick, are laughing at the idea of a presidential crony, an alleged foreign-policy naif, trying to combat an international adversary with images – in this case, fighting terrorists by visiting with Muslim women and getting the president to talk respectfully about Islam.

But, like Wick, Hughes has the president’s ear. She has energy. She understands that what people overseas think is a vital part of foreign policy. She’s television-savvy, and she’s launched a stream of initiatives designed to improve America’s position in what Bush calls “the great ideological struggle of the 21st century.”



The initiatives include, for the first time, giving American ambassadors and military commanders overseas a daily, one-page Rapid Response set of talking points on hot topics in the world, encouraging U.S. diplomats to get on television and organizing a top-level interagency committee to combat terrorist ideology.

She also got Bush’s former White House personnel chief, Dina Powell, an Egyptian-American, to head up an expanding international exchange program aimed at inviting strategic personalities, such as clerics, teachers and journalists, to visit the United States.

Hughes is planning to launch a large-scale program to foster the teaching of English to children around the world, giving them both a key economic tool and means to access American messaging.

She’s in the process of improving U.S. Internet communications, including participation on foreign chat rooms, and has set up three message “hubs” in London, Dubai and Brussels. She’s also sending Muslim-Americans on speaking trips abroad.

In a controversial move within the administration, Hughes and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem to have persuaded Bush – temporarily, at least – to drop the label “Islamic fascism” from his speeches; diplomats say that Muslims hear it as an attack on their religion, thereby validating the extremists’ false charge that the United States is at war with Islam.

Unfortunately, unlike Wick, Hughes is serving as the nation’s top propagandist at a time when enemy ideology is ascendant in the world. In Wick’s day, communism was headed for the ash heap of history, even if only Reagan recognized the fact at the time.

“I like her and respect her a lot,” said one Member of Congress who oversees Hughes’ activities. “But what she’s doing is like fighting an apartment fire with one hose. In fact, the whole world is on fire.”

Bush himself told NBC’s Brian Williams last month, “Of course, I worry about America’s image. We’re great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front.”

The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey showed that only 21 percent of Jordanians have a favorable attitude toward the United States, as do 23 percent in Turkey and Pakistan.

A top official at America’s two leading broadcasting channels to the Arab world, Radio Sawa and Alhurra television, told me he thinks the United States definitely is “losing” the ideological struggle with radical Islam.

For one thing, the United States broadcasts no television to much of the non-Arab Islamic world, relying on radio broadcasts by the Voice of America.

And, even though Sawa and Alhurra are gaining audiences in the Arab world, they are far outdistanced by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which broadcast nonstop anti-U.S. propaganda, much of it almost pornographically drenched in blood and body parts.

A defense contractor, the Braddock Road Group, has given a briefing to various Washington, D.C., officials – the Pentagon says it’s classified – showing what jihadist groups broadcast on Arab television, Islamic Web sites and DVDs.

The message, delivered with continual scenes of violence, is that the United States wants to control Middle East oil, wants to humiliate Muslims and is conducting a “crusade” against Islam.

When I asked Hughes whether she thought the United States was losing the ideological war, she said, “I’m an optimistic person. I think we have a long way to go. We have a lot more to do.”

Hughes commissioned a huge, 18,000-person poll in 14 countries, which showed high rates of disapproval of the United States – but a willingness almost everywhere to change their mind if the United States showed respect for their views and values and partnered with them in solving joint problems. Respect for other countries was not a hallmark of Bush’s first term. It is becoming more so in the second, thanks in no small part to Rice and Hughes.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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