Missed Opportunity

It’s high time that we say a good word about the crucial job that is being done by President Bush’s best international policymaking appointment – his designee to mobilize U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes.

There is only one thing that is stopping us today from saying a good word about the job she’s done since her appointment was announced with due fanfare March 15 – she hasn’t started doing it yet and officials say she won’t begin until this fall.

This is not just an opportunity missed, but a crisis-management opportunity missed. Because America’s reputation in the Muslim world is in critical shape and getting worse. And America’s public diplomacy has been a nonfunctional disaster, woefully underfunded and understaffed. The last such undersecretary, Margaret Tutwiler, quit last summer to join the private sector _ the job went inexplicably unfilled ever since.

“The activities associated with public diplomacy need to be seriously prioritized on an equal level with an aircraft carrier,” a frustrated Tutwiler told The Washington Post’s Robin Wright upon leaving.

Hughes has one thing that is essential for someone with a big title but little staff, little funding and little line authority: She has big-time clout _ access to her pal, the president, anytime she needs it. Bureaucrats fear and will respond to that _ because what they do best is cover their own aspirations. In hailing Hughes’ appointment in March, Vice President Cheney conceded to The Washington Post that public diplomacy “has been a very weak part of our arsenal.” Indeed.

A Government Accountability Office report warned last month that “recent polling data show that anti-Americanism is spreading and deepening around the world. … Such anti-American sentiments can increase foreign public support for terrorism directed at Americans, impact the cost and effectiveness of military operations, weaken the United States’ ability to align with other nations in pursuit of common policy objectives, and dampen foreign publics’ enthusiasm for U.S. business services and products.”

While President Bush points with pride to having brought democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, this is not the message that dominates the daily news in that region. The daily drumbeat of news in the Muslim world has long been about painful truths caught on film: Photos of U.S. military guards sadistically abusing detainees at Iraq’s Abu Graib prison (piling naked prisoners atop one another, et al.). Then came those Guantanamo reports not caught on tape but verified officially _ abuses of terrorist suspects in sadistic ways that seem cut from tales we used to tell about our enemies in World War II. And accounts, for two years, of U.S. guards abusing Islam’s holy Koran in various ways.

Then came Newsweek’s blunder _ reported, retracted _ that the U.S. military was “expected” to confirm that a Guantanamo guard flushed pages of a copy of the Koran down a toilet. News 101 taught us to never try to predict official actions as news. Still, the U.S. military issued orders more than a year ago that guards must treat the Koran respectfully. Something surely occurred to prompt that military order. Predictably, Bush officials hammered at Newsweek’s blunder. Predictably, a new official blunder surfaced: Official photos were taken and sold of Saddam Hussein in his briefs.

Viewed in the continuum of the television and print news, the world sees only that low-level grunts are punished for these abuses but top-level generals get a wink-and-a-nod-and-a-free pass _ even though official investigations found they failed to swiftly halt them. And top officials who set the tone that begat the policy that begat the unconscionable abuses also get free passes. No wonder Uncle Sam’s image in the Mideast has plunged to fathoms that once seemed unfathomable.

Meanwhile, as we await the belated arrival of the undersecretary for public diplomacy, we must recognize that even the best spin doctor cannot be a miracle worker. So our first advice to help the savvy Hughes do her job (when she gets to it) is not directed at the spin-doctor-designate but those top dogs who set the tone that became horribly discordant. It can best be told by tweaking an old vaudeville doctor-patient joke to fit the tumult of our times:

Uncle Sam, in great pain, visits his spin doctor. He bends his arm this way and that.

Uncle Sam: “Spin Doctor, it hurts when I do this _ what can I do?”

Spin Doctor: “Don’t do that.”

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)