EVEN BEFORE SHE ALIGHTED in Cairo, Karen Hughes had her first awkward moment. Hughes, the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, was on her way last week to the Middle East on her first foreign trip. When a reporter on her plane asked if Hughes would be meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular but banned opposition group in Egypt, she turned to an aide. After a moment she replied simply, "We are respectful of Egypt's laws."
The rest of Hughes' trip through Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey didn't go much better. Hughes' audiences asked tough questions, and Hughes gave them non-answers. Her lack of foreign policy expertise was evident, but the larger problem may be the job itself: The office of public diplomacy is poorly defined, poorly organized and quite possibly unnecessary.
In July, after the undersecretary position had been vacant for more than a year, Bush appointed Hughes, his former communications director. Bush's first appointee, advertising whiz Charlotte Beers, tried "branding" the United States, to the dismay of even her cohorts at the State Department. The next appointee, one-time State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, brought diplomatic experience, but she left for Wall Street within months.
Hughes has public relations know-how and media-savvy that her predecessors lacked, but her skills and strategy have proved less than transferable. Meeting with handpicked audiences and repeating canned messages fails to create the robust dialogue that should be at the core of public diplomacy. Tried-and-true presidential campaign tactics such as holding babies for the cameras come off as forced, even macabre, when they follow a discussion of women and children dying in Iraq.
As one advisory panel stated: "We want to be clear: 'Spin' and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer. Foreign policy counts." Implicit in this message is that making foreign policy is inseparable from selling it.
To be fair, anyone in Hughes' position would have difficulty coordinating the public diplomacy enterprise, which involves not only the State Department and its many foreign emissaries but also the Pentagon, International Broadcasting Bureau (the successor to the U.S. Information Agency), the White House Office of Global Communications, any government official traveling abroad and private enterprises such as McDonald's and Microsoft.
Each of these entities partakes in public diplomacy -- that is, helping to create America's international reputation -- and each has its own idea of what that is. Yet they all exist in a reality shaped by the policies and actions of the U.S. government.
Public diplomacy is certainly a challenging task, particularly now, and it may well be an unmanageable one. Whether it is worthwhile is another question. However, it is clear that, when it comes to America's image abroad, presentation is secondary to policy.