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

Toward the close of her recent “listening tour” in Morocco, Karen Hughes and her entourage of staffers, translators, and security agents barreled into Settat, an industrial town off the highway to Marrakech. The six-car convoy roared down the empty, palm-lined avenues, then halted in front of Moulay Ismail Middle School, where a party at a computer center built by USAID dollars was already under way. Hip-hop music crackled through the sound system, a few decibels too loud. A woman whooped Berber tribal songs at a gaggle of bouncing children in the shade of the schoolyard’s orange grove. In the driveway, a line of local dignitaries stood grinning, some dabbing at their perspiring foreheads with handkerchiefs.

Bounding out of the ambassador’s bulletproof BMW in a cherry-red jacket and sensible shoes, Hughes beelined for the crowd. By the time her coterie caught up, the six-foot-tall Texan was deep in the throng, shaking hands, hugging women, and picking up babies to kiss for the camera, all the while juggling a pocketbook that held, among other things, an Eyewitness Travel Guide to Morocco and a small stack of note cards with a stump speech typed in large block letters. As one of Hughes’s aides had told me earlier on the trip, “This ain’t her first rodeo.”

Indeed it ain’t. Following a stint as a television reporter in Dallas/Fort Worth, Hughes became the Texas press coordinator for the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and then orchestrated George W. Bush’s election as governor in 1994, serving as his director of communications. When Bush ran for president in 2000, Hughes became known as much for her ability to read her boss’s mind as for her steely message control. “That’s her shtick— ‘I know the president better than anyone else,’” a former administration official said of Hughes. “She has an innate ability to mimic the sentiments and intellect of the president.” By the time she left the White House in 2002 to return to Texas with her family (and write a tell-nothing memoir, Ten Minutes From Normal, which one reviewer called a “campaign brochure between hard covers”), an Esquire profile gushed that Hughes was “the most powerful woman in America.”

On the heels of Bush’s appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, his decision to bring Hughes back to Washington as his undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, in the spring of 2005, was seen as a sign that he recognized that the United States, mired in an increasingly unpopular war and buffeted by revelations of military abuses and atrocities, had a severe global image problem. What better person to sell the administration’s values and policies than the confidant who had helped make a “compassionate conservative” out of a governor who once joked about an execution, had spun his legendary twisted syntax as just-plain-folks straight talk, and had beaten back the attacks of his opponents in two presidential elections?

Public diplomacy has long been the stuff of softball politics. But after Edward R. Murrow took over the U.S. Information Agency in 1961, he famously declared, “If they want me in on the crash landings, I better damn well be in on the takeoffs,” meaning he wanted public diplomacy to have a seat at the policy table. And for much of the Cold War, public diplomacy—from Duke Ellington’s touring jazz orchestras to English classes and movie nights at American cultural centers—was an important weapon in the U.S. policy arsenal. (At its height in 1989, USIA’s annual budget hit $882 million—almost one-quarter the size of the State Department’s budget at the time, and about $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.) But by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the need for propaganda had ostensibly eased. In 1999, after years of budget cuts, the emaciated agency was folded into the State Department. The merger is still remembered there as The Murder.

Enter Hughes—brash, forceful, the most inside of Bush insiders. Hughes not only had the ear of the president; as his longtime consigliere, she also had a seat at the policy table that predecessors like Murrow could only have dreamed about. When I joked to one former senior State Department official that Hughes was a virtual Condi No. 2, the official shot back, completely deadpan, “Are you kidding? She’s No. 1.”

A few months after Hughes took up her job as undersecretary, the Bush administration put her in charge of formulating and coordinating all “strategic communication” for the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the White House, and other executive branch entities. Her new job, Hughes told me, is to be “the conductor of the big orchestra that is the federal government.” Her biggest brainchild is a “rapid-response unit,” which operates much like a political campaign’s war room. Every morning, underlings dig through top stories in the world media. Then, in response, Hughes’s office puts out a pithy two-page memo with talking points for anyone who might speak for America that day, from the U.S. ambassador in Beijing to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Hughes has also talked of plans “to forward-deploy regional SWAT teams” to spread the administration’s message, including regional hubs with Arabic speakers to appear on Al-Jazeera and other influential outlets. To support these and other more traditional public-diplomacy initiatives, Hughes is pushing to increase the budgets for public diplomacy and visitor exchanges next year to almost $825 million.

The larger goal of Hughes’s muscular efforts at message control is twofold: to offer a positive vision of America and, as Hughes put it in a talk to State Department employees, “to isolate and marginalize the extremists.” But curiously, even Hughes seems to recognize that such efforts at outreach have their limits—and that what falls outside those limits apparently includes one of the prickliest issues on the U.S. public-diplomacy agenda. “I don’t think we’re going to change any minds about Iraq at all for years,” Hughes told me. “Until we succeed, there’s nothing I can say to change people’s minds.”

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.