NOTE: This is a news brief of a May 10, 2006, meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Full transcript will be available shortly on cfr.org.
NEW YORK — Karen Hughes, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, says the Bush administration is increasingly altering policy to bridge the perceived disconnect between U.S. actions abroad and the values its officials champion in public statements.
Hughes, a confidante of President George W. Bush who assumed the role of America's ambassador-at-large in mid-2005, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York there is an increasing appreciation in government that "policy must match public diplomacy."
Hughes cited as a recent example the administration's decision to continue supplying food and medicine to Palestinians despite an official cutoff of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority after the election of a government led by Hamas, the group regarded by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization.
"America stands for and believes in democracy. We believe in elections. We believe in people's rights to choose their leaders, even if we don't agree with the policies of those governments that are elected," she said. The United States has told Hamas "you can't have one foot in democracy and one foot in terror."
Hughes said the Iraq war, in particular, had caused many to question America's commitment to the values it publicly embraces. One young man in Turkey, she said, asked her, "Does the Statue of Liberty still face out?" She cautioned Americans not to expect those abroad who fervently opposed the American invasion in 2003 to change their minds quickly. But she expressed confidence that history will bear out the U.S. decision "over the long run, as we begin to see Iraq building its democracy."
In prepared comments, Hughes outlined the challenges facing U.S. officials as they seek to address what surveys show to be a severe decline in the world's regard for the nation's reputation and foreign policy decisions. Conceding the point of presider Isobel Coleman, a CFR senior fellow, Hughes acknowledged changing international attitudes is "an uphill battle."
One of the most serious problems in this regard, she said, is security abroad for U.S. consular officials, many of whom have been forced to retreat behind embassy walls and thus are less accessible to local media. This has created an image abroad of a "Fortress America," Hughes says, which is hard to dispel.
To address this problem, Hughes said she pressed for and won a change in State Department policies which had required American ambassadors to receive prior approval from Washington to do local media interviews. "Now we expect them to go out there and practice public policy," she said.
She also took credit for reversing what she described as the "informal policy of ignoring al-Jazeera," the Middle East's dominant satellite broadcaster and a frequent target of complaints from the Bush administration. "I've done interviews with al-Jazeera, I've recommended other senior officials do interviews with al-Jazeera."
As a result, Hughes said, when Council of Holy Warriors (formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released a video earlier this month, al-Jazeera did not merely replay it for three days. Instead, the network reached out to Alberto Fernandez, the Arabic-speaking spokesman for the State Department's Near East bureau, who appeared on the network to raise questions about the motives behind the video.
Hughes conceded she places American actions "in the best possible light," but said "I object to the word 'spin'... I'm not concocting anything. I try to portray the facts."
The assistant secretary also said she was proud of her role in winning more funding for public diplomacy funding in general, and stressed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the effort is global and not only directed at the Muslim world. "In a time of very tight budgeting," she said, "we have a substantial increase in budget for public diplomacy." Government-wide, including money controlled by the Defense Department and other agencies outside Hughes' purview, the Congressional Research Service says the administration spent $954 million in FY 2005, just over $1 billion in the current fiscal year, and is seeking an increase to $1.14 billion for FY 2007 (PDF).
Asked by a journalist, Sheryl WuDunn, to assess the progress of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, Hughes admitted measurements are anecdotal at this point. But she cited a measurable increase in the number of people in the Arab and wider Muslim world willing to speak out against Osama bin Laden.
"Increasingly, people across the world, and especially in the Muslim world, are speaking out against acts of terror." On a more granular note, she said she had ordered publication of the U.S. financed Arabic-language youth magazine, "Hi," to cease when a survey revealed few people were reading it. However, a similar survey of the magazine's website showed significant growth in traffic, and so "we improved the website and suspended publication of the magazine."