Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tone Deaf


Tone Deaf

Ari Berman


It's a perfect snapshot of American foreign policy today: the Bush Administration's outreach program to the Muslim world has no Muslims on staff. Depending on your perspective, this is either a symptom or a cause of a much larger public diplomacy problem.

If that weren't enough, the new head of the public diplomacy effort is Bush's longtime spin-master Karen Hughes, the spokeswoman for many of the policies that have fueled worldwide resentment of America in the first place. Her new task is evidently none too urgent--Hughes won't start until the fall. What's a few months to a program that hasn't accomplished much of anything over the past four years?

Shortly after 9/11, the Administration turned to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive famed as the "Steel Magnolia of Advertising," to re-brand America's image in the world. Armed with a $1 billion budget and fawning media coverage, Beers would pitch Uncle Sam the same way she sold Uncle Ben's rice in her 20s. Beers unveiled a radio ad encouraging Americans to spot fellow terrorists in their midst and a series of slick TV spots featuring American Muslims hyping the joys of freedom and tolerance. Public opinion experts panned the segments as simplistic and ineffective, while Muslim governments refused to run them. Beers resigned, for stated health reasons, days before the start of the Iraq War.

Her replacement, Margaret Tutwiler, boasted years of experience as a State Department spokeswoman for four different Republican administrations, plus a recent gig as the Ambassador to Morocco. Tutwiler promised to listen to overseas diplomats and "admit we do not necessarily have all the answers." A youth exchange program with the Middle East was to be her main initiative. Yet, once again, hard-line Administration policies overshadowed public diplomacy. After five months on the job, Tutwiler jumped to the New York Stock Exchange the same week the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced. It took eleven months to name her replacement.

At the beginning of the outreach effort, Beers speculated that a "30 percent conversion rate" for a skeptical Muslim audience would "represent a sales curve any corporation would envy." Today, trends are moving quickly in the opposite direction. A recent report by the Pew Center's Global Attitudes Project found that "anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now that at any time in modern history," and "most acute in the Muslim world." After the Iraq War, "it became clear that the US global image hadn't just slipped, it had plummeted."

Even Dick Cheney, hardly a defeatist, now admits that public diplomacy "has been a very weak part of our arsenal." The appointment of Hughes, Bush says, "signifies my personal commitment to international diplomacy." Apparently, so does John Bolton.