James K. Glassman: face of America

Update: pls see this next post for "on further reflection" thoughts on the topic.

I have known and liked Jim Glassman for a very, very long time, since we were both on the college newspaper together. We've each been through a variety of incarnations since then. One of his was as publisher of the Atlantic for two years in the 1980s. The Atlantic was also the magazine that ran an excerpt from his (and Kevin Hassett's) notorious well-known book Dow 36,000 as a cover story in 1999. He is a lively, funny, and creative guy, and there are lots of jobs for which I would happily sign him up.

But as the head of America's public-diplomacy efforts? What's the right analogy here... Maybe, the Redskins, finally concluding that Joe Gibbs was great in his time but that time has passed, bringing me in as head coach? Or suiting me up as left tackle to strengthen their battered O-line? I myself am a wonderful guy, and I'm interested in football, but...

Karen Hughes was a preposterous, tin-eared choice to begin with, reflecting the narcissistic view that to explain America to the world what you needed was somebody who understood George W. Bush really well, rather than somebody who understood the first thing about the outside world. On all available evidence, she only made worse what people don't like about America at the moment, which can be summarized (and oversimplified) as:

- in much of Asia, the idea that we're living off their hard work and cheap products, meanwhile blaming and lecturing them plus being too lazy to learn very much about them;

- in Europe, that we're too boorish and boosterish -- and, while those two traits have long been part of the European snootiness toward America, it's worse now because of the perceived loss of America's moral standing via Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, et al, plus the sense that Americans are fraidy-cats who will accept just about anything in the name of anti-terrorism;

- in much of the Arab-Islamic world... well, you know this already.

As I've argued in the Atlantic recently, America's idea is still powerful and attractive, and America still has the opportunity to present a compelling and authentic face to the world. Over the years I have met, through reporting, many true-blue patriotic Americans who have spent their careers learning how Asian (or European or Arab-Islamic etc) cultures work and think, and how America could best engage them. Jim Glassman, despite being a great guy, is not one of these. As with Hughes, this seems another choice driven by internal comfort (the assumption that he'd face no confirmation problems) rather than external suitability (demonstrated understanding of the outside world), which means another bad choice.

Unless, of course, things are far enough gone, in terms of this Administration's effect on America's image, and there's so little time left, that who's in the job doesn't matter anyway. In which case I will be sorry to have said anything. *

* (Last three sentences altered since first posting, to make internal/external point.)