Brief Lives November 2006

Ears Wide Shut

For more than a year, Karen Hughes has been trying to sell George Bush’s America to the Middle East. Here’s why it isn’t working

After Condoleezza Rice announced Hughes’s nomination, Hughes made a point of noting that she was eager “to listen and to learn” from people in other countries. Having been born in Paris and having spent time in Canada and Panama, she said, had given her “firsthand” experience of how American policies can be interpreted differently in other countries. But notwithstanding kindergarten in Ontario and a few years of school in the sheltered precincts of the Panama Canal Zone (where her father was then lieutenant governor), her first listening tour to the Middle East in September 2005 quickly went off script: in one memorable encounter, Saudi women challenged Hughes’s assumption that they craved the same freedoms as their American sisters. In the aftermath, Hughes took public diplomacy private, and trimmed back her overseas press contingents.

Then, slowly and cautiously, she began to relax. On this recent trip to Morocco, with me and an AP reporter sometimes in tow, Hughes played basketball with underprivileged kids in a Casablanca slum, shopped for carpets in the souks of Marrakech, and danced along to Moroccan hip-hop with the country’s most popular teenage rappers.

Yet for all her protestations that she was in Morocco “to listen and to learn,” Hughes seemed to be there to talk. She talked about herself as a working mom. She talked about choosing freedom over tyranny. “Tell me what we can do better,” she said to a group of Moroccan business leaders, in a discussion about bridging the cultural gap. Soon, though, Hughes offered her own answer. “I keep thinking we need to do a reality-TV show of a Moroccan family living in America! Let’s make this happen!”

More often than not, the burden seemed to be on her audience, not Hughes, to be the better listener. When a student asked Hughes at a cultural center in Casablanca what difficulties Hughes faced, she paused and then said, “Misunderstanding.” She went on to explain, “We’re a very diverse and tolerant country, but people don’t see us that way. They think we’re very arrogant, and they get that from the movies and TV coverage they watch.” Then she added, “At a time of war, at a time we’re trying to liberate the people of Iraq from a horrible dictator, it’s really hard to convey what America is like.” Later, at the middle school in Settat, Hughes zeroed in on a young girl in a hejab, who had put together a presentation on fighting terrorism. Hughes pulled up a chair and, as Moroccan photographers and cameramen circled, made a show of taking notes while the girl, working with a translator, went through her slides. “I wish I spoke Arabic! I need to learn it! But maybe I’m a little too old to learn!” Hughes teased. The girl smiled weakly. She appeared not to get the joke.

Part of Hughes’s past political strength has been her ability to connect with average Americans and communicate the president’s policies in terms they understand. But foreign audiences don’t necessarily think the same way, and they haven’t responded as favorably to her bootstrap bluntness, folksy charm, and anecdotes about being a mother. When I asked Hughes midway through the trip, and then again at the end, what she had heard and what she had learned, she skirted the issue, saying things like, “I did TV so they saw an American official on TV, and that’s important. But in the long run, the thing that really fosters understanding is people-to-people contact.” Part evasion, part bromide, that response seems of a piece with her willingness to write off any real effort to win hearts and minds on the question of Iraq. It also seems to ignore the obvious benefits that emanate from any conversation, one to one or millions to millions, in which each side feels the other is listening, not just talking.

Partway through the trip, Ambassador Thomas Riley hosted a dinner at Villa America, his residence in Rabat. Handpicked from Morocco’s elite, the guests were what Hughes called “key influencers.” According to Aboubakr Jamai, a prominent local editor who attended the dinner, Hughes, draped in a bronze caftan borrowed from the ambassador’s wife, largely stuck to the same talking points she had used during the trip. Her audience smiled and stuck to being polite. As Jamai told me the next day, “We got very little time with her, and I saw people who are very critical of the administration saying crazy things about how beautiful America is.” For his part, Jamai concluded it was a waste of time. When the dinner was over, both he and Hughes went back out into the Moroccan night, armed with the same opinions they had brought to the table.

Karen Hughes dances with teenage Moroccan rappers in Marrakech.

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Ilana Ozernoy is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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