Karen Hughes is not as visible as when she worked at the White House, or on two presidential campaigns, but her 16 months as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs have given her opportunities to counter what she calls the "propaganda" that the media in many Arab and Muslim countries convey to their people about the United States.
In a meeting (Dec. 19) in her State Department office, Hughes told me she recognizes the difference between the Cold War, when "we were trying to get information into largely closed societies whose people were hungry to hear from us," and today, when "we're competing for attention and credibility in a very crowded communications environment."
She points to three big areas on which she is focusing: (1) exchanges that allow people who have never been to America to come and see for themselves what we are like; (2) communications, which promote the policies of the American government in nations where they have been mostly unheard, or twisted for the political ends of the rulers; and (3) what she calls "the diplomacy of deeds," that is, focusing on America's actions that help people improve their lives.
Hughes has told American ambassadors around the world to get on local television more and articulate official policy to counter propaganda that communicates a false view of America. That's all well and good, but would most Americans accept the pronouncements of an ambassador from, say, Iran? The United States continues to believe that because we see ourselves as objectively good, the rest of the world can be persuaded of our goodness and not take up arms against us. I'm sure some can be so persuaded, but probably not nearly enough and very likely not soon enough to prevent more attacks.
Hughes mentions a group of Saudi clerics who made their first visit to America at the State Department's invitation. She says she had been told their Friday sermons "had been very negative, very anti-American." They visited American synagogues, mosques and churches. Hughes says she was told by "our people on the ground" in Saudi Arabia that the clerics now have a "much different and changed view of our country."
I ask if Hughes has checked on the content of their sermons since their return to Saudi Arabia. She says she has not, but has received reports that there has been a "difference" and that the clerics have a different view of America. I wonder if this is part of the propaganda ploy, to tell us what we want to hear so we will let down our guard. Can they be converted, if not to our point of view, than at least to foreswear violence in pursuit of their political objectives?
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