Asia Times Nov 2, 2005
A US ear in the Muslim world
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
No one expected that Karen Hughes' "listening tour" to improve America's image in the Muslim world would be easy. But few thought the campaign would founder as it did.
In Saudi Arabia, she angered a room full of Arab women when she implied that they should fight for their right to drive. In Egypt she erroneously accused Saddam Hussein of gassing hundreds of thousands of his own people. In Indonesia her defense of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq engendered hostility among students.
In Malaysia she again exculpated the invasion. "President [George W Bush] made the decision that he believed was in the best interest of American security and for greater peace in the world."
Needless to say, Hughes hasn't won America many new friends in her latest role as under secretary of public diplomacy. What she has inadvertently done is bolster perceptions that Washington is self-righteous beyond redemption. And without a thorough revision, her re-branding campaign will abet rather than assuage the "enemy".
The root of the problem lies in the nature of her agenda. Contrary to official spin, Hughes has not been hired to improve America's standing in the world, but the Bush administration's.
This is a hopeless cause - to expect the Muslim world to change its mind over arguably the most brazen and unilateralist American president in history; one who has chosen to make the Islamic world the battle front for "freedom and democracy".
The surest way for Hughes and her envoy to begin improving America's relations with the Muslim world and establish the "dialogue" she seeks would be to concede that mistakes have been made - to distance herself from some of the administration's more blatant foreign-policy blunders.
As it is, in each of her stops across the Muslim world, she came across as a "mouthpiece" for the president, as a university rector in Indonesia put it.
Apparently Hughes thought promoting Bush's agenda would pass undetected among Muslims, so long as she presented herself as receptive and respectful. But when you're a mouthpiece it's hard to hide the fact.
The role constricts; it alters inner feelings and outward demeanor. The heart is not open (though constantly strives to give the impression it is); the mind is self-conscious, always returning to the agenda, which is invariably different than how it's officially billed.
In a word, the business is insincere. And during her tour, Hughes struggled in vain not to appear so, often ingratiating herself in the process. In Malaysia, for instance, she said it had been "thrilling" to hear the Muslim call to prayer.
Are we so naive as to think Muslims won't detect sycophancy coming from the lips of a Western diplomat, when Washington has all but obliterated trust in the Muslim world in recent years, from propping up autocracies while purporting to promote democracy, to claiming its main reason for invading Iraq was to hunt for weapons of mass destruction and liberate the Iraqi people?
One of Hughes' main tactics has been to emphasize commonalities. In Turkey she told women she was a mom and that she loved kids. In Indonesia she told a group of pre-selected students that her state of Texas was "very big, so you can imagine my surprise to hear that your country, Indonesia, is three times bigger than my big state of Texas".
It's the big Issues, though - from Iraq and Israel to addressing globalization, terrorism and the agendas of multinationals - in which Muslims would like to find common ground. They want big answers to big questions.
They want to know whether the most-powerful nation in the history of the world will flex its power with restraint, that it will respect its neighbors, that it will aim to empower, not subjugate.
Hughes is attempting to reassure the Muslim world via parachute-dropping into a country for a few days before moving on. This is hardly enough time to win over minds, let alone hearts. It borders on presumptuous.
Of course, Hughes' campaign does not end with whistle-stops. She knows that fixing America's reputation is a long-term project. Toward that end, she'd like more students to come to America. "I want [students] to know they are welcome in the US and our universities want them, that the American people welcome them," she said in Malaysia after opening a Lincoln Corner there.
Lincoln Corners are spaces in libraries dedicated to American content. The State Department has been opening them in Muslim countries of late, to foster greater interest in and understanding of America.
The challenge, said a colleague of Hughes, has been to find locals to operate them, out of fear for their own personal safety.
The challenge for Hughes remains how to change that.
Ioannis Gatsiounis is an American writer based in Kuala Lumpur.