Willie Horton Redux: Karen Hughes Breaks Her Silence

Karen HughesKaren Hughes, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, has been strangely silent this summer. The Bush confidante sworn in with much hoopla nearly a year ago to fix America's image overseas has had practically nothing to say recently about pressing issues of the day. Why? Was it a desire on her part to take a break from the demands of her job? Or did her lack of knowledge about the Middle East require her to be unheard if not unseen?

But now, upon the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Hurricane Karen, as she is known in Bush circles (or at least was until Katrina brought the President's poll numbers down), has chosen to let her views about the state of the world be better known, in a September 12 article in the national daily USA Today.

Unfortunately, Hughes's just published global tour d'horizon, reminiscent of a sanctimonious small-town sermon, reflects much that has been wrong with American public diplomacy with her at the helm. Her 928-word piece, "Where's the Outrage: A United World Must Resolutely Condemn Terror" shows Hughes — and her notions about America's place on our small planet — at their worst, for several reasons:

First, Hughes blames the inadequate global response to terrorism not one iota on the missteps of the Bush administration, but on the "lack of outrage" of ordinary citizens throughout the world. "Where are," Hughes asks in a rhetorical flourish that shows a rare capacity for conflating unrelated topics, "the mothers organizing against terrorism as Americans mothers did against drunken driving? Where are the fathers promising to teach their sons to choose to live rather than choose to die?" (Evidently, according to Hughes, who proudly proclaimed to Middle East audiences that "I'm a Mom," foreign fathers are not expected to teach their daughters anything).

Hughes seems to forget that, in the wake of 9/11, the world expressed sympathy for and solidarity with the United States. It was only after the Bush administration's unilateral and aggressive military actions — particularly against Iraq — that global opinion turned against the United States.

Second, Hughes unjustifiably attacks religious leaders worldwide for tolerating terrorism. Their criticism of violence, she declares, "seems oddly muted." But it has been widely reported that many clerics and congregations overseas have condemned terrorism. And to blame all Muslim religious leaders for crimes of a tiny minority of their co-religionists is a gross exaggeration.

Hughes's argument, moreover, can easily be turned upside down: Is the mainstream religious leadership in the United States to be blamed for the horrors of Abu Ghraib or the "collateral" and intentional killings of Iraqi civilians at the hand of American troops, which for many throughout the world are a form of terror? If top representatives of American creeds are not responsible for these horrid misdeeds, as Hughes, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, would doubtless contend, then certainly leading Muslim clerics can't be accused of condoning terror by a small group of extremists who claim to share a common faith in Allah.

If, however, Hughes believes that an intolerant minority of Muslim religious figures is indeed accountable for inciting hatred that leads to terror, why does she not excoriate evangelist Jerry Falwell (who stated "Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses," adding that "I think Muhammad set an opposite example"); evangelist Pat Robertson (who proposed the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez); or, for that matter, the evangelical Christian Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, known for his notorious statement about a Muslim warlord in Somalia that "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol"?

If Hughes believes in individual responsibility, certainly one of the "values" that defines the United States (and how the Bush administration loves to hype our all-American "values," while at the same time tolerating moral abominations such as the interrogations at Guantanamo condemned by human rights advocates), she should admit that ultimately it is not religious leaders, either as a majority or minority, but the terrorists themselves, who should be held accountable for their despicable actions.

Indeed, it may be tempting to blame evangelists like Billy Graham for George W. Bush's actions in the Middle East — which have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians — but that is letting the President off the hook. It is he, and his administration, that deserve the blame, not an aged preacher known for chummying up to those in power whose latest book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, Hughes has reportedly had at her bedside.

Third, true to the tendency of the President and his aides to make useless and misleading historical analogies, Hughes says that "we have a model" in how to stop terror: of all things, the worldwide abolition of slavery. Hughes may see links between the victory over terrorism (whatever and whenever that may be) and the historic freeing of slaves, but surely she should make the logical basis of her sweeping generalization clearer.

Is she suggesting that Americans and others have become the "slaves" of terrorists? If that is so, she is sorely mistaken, for the public in the United States has not become subservient to terrorist demands. We may be threatened, but we have not given up our rights as American citizens, despite the existence of legislation like the Patriot Act. Americans are not slaves, least of all to terrorists (or the Bush administration), and so the example of opposition to slavery as a way to liberate us from terrorism is misguided.

Fourth, Hughes's proposal on how to fight terrorists is vague and ill-defined. "Our challenge," she says, "is to launch a new grassroots movement across all faiths and continents, a movement that clearly states that no grievance, no complaint, no matter how legitimate, can ever justify the targeting and killing of innocent civilians. A movement that commits to teach our children that life is precious, diversity should be celebrated, and hope can conquer hate."

It would be most enlightening to know specifically how Hughes proposes to spend taxpayers' money to organize such a "movement," and exactly what would be its programs. As it stands now, her planned crusade — to use a word that so easily slips from her President's tongue — seems so wishy-washy as to be without discernible direction. In fact, for many poorly educated people in the world today, especially those without exposure to societies outside of their own, such a mass action would be appealing as a means to oppose what they perceive to be an American desire for world domination through sinister geopolitical machinations and destructive technology.

Finally, Hughes condemns the "chilling" "propaganda" of terrorists. But even a first reading of her article suggests that it is itself a piece of crude propaganda based on the time-tested "us" vs. "them" Bush distortion of reality. What Hughes is really saying — beneath her blah-blah language for a "new grassroots movement across all faiths and continents" — is that the main blame for terror squarely falls on a non-Christian religion — Islam — and its leaders.

In all fairness to her, she does not use the absurd neocon verbal atrocity "Islamofascism" to describe a religion with a long and revered tradition. And she does briefly acknowledge that "many voices, Western and Eastern, Islamic and Christian, have spoken out against the violence." But the thrust of her message is that, because of the Muslim faith and what she considers its irresponsible clerics, "children are being taught the language of hate. Thousands of people have been trained in terror training camps, convinced that the only way to defend their faith is to kill all others who have a different point of view."

Sadly, from Hughes's uninspiring remarks we can draw one disturbing but not surprising conclusion: that she, partisan political operator that she is, has again exposed us, and perhaps this time as a farce, to the Bush formula for winning elections in the United States. This Rove-flavored brainwashing, so reminiscent of propaganda in totalitarian states, is based on instilling fear, all the while depicting the world in stark black-and-white terms, with America the holy and beautiful always on the side of the angels in an apocalyptic struggle to rid our planet of Evil once and for all.

True to her calling as a skilled practitioner of improperganda (she played an active role in the White House Iraq Group that "sold" the war to the American public) the Under Secretary (who prefers to be known as a "communicator") has not failed to choose a target audience for her Islam-the-enemy remarks. And that target, one easily concludes even without reading between the lines of her article, is in fact not people "across all faiths and continents" that share similar ideals. Indeed, her words are directed to a much narrower group: the political base that is so important to the Republican Party in the upcoming November elections — Christian fundamentalists for whom there is one truth, the one revealed in the Bible (and, for the most misguided among them, in the garbled utterances of the Decider, George W. Bush, who claims to be in communication with the Almighty).

Hughes also is trying to reach the so-called "security Moms," persons understandably concerned about the safety of their family in this uncertain age; that she has this group in mind is suggested by her parochial if not vulgar insinuation that American "moms" concerned about drunken driving are far superior to foreign mothers who do not share this (admittedly worthwhile) concern.

It does not take much imagination to realize that the Under Secretary's tactless proclamation about the unique sanctity of American motherhood — so typical of the America-centered tone of her USA Today sermonette, which looks at the rest of the world with such condescension — will do little to improve America's "image" in Muslim lands, and particularly among their female inhabitants.

What Hughes's narrow-minded politicking article — far being from a noble call for a United World — really reflects is what at heart has been the main problem of the Bush administration's public diplomacy from the very day George W. Bush assumed the presidential office: that he and his provincial cohorts have no real interest in the outside world except as a extension of domestic politics. For the White House, other countries "exist" only as nightmare places of its own invention where foreign variations of Willie Horton — the convicted felon whose non-Caucasian visage was used to terrify "ordinary" Americans into supporting Bush Sr. in the 1988 presidential election — can be exposed as cruel, threatening villains (who deserve all the shock-and-awe bombing and torture they can get) so that gullible voters, once again, can be scared into voting Republican for as long as possible.

John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who practiced public diplomacy for more than 20 years, now compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review," which can be obtained free by requesting it by an e-mail to johnhbrown30 AT hotmail.com or at [http://www.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/pdpr].


It was interesting to see Karen suggest a grassroot movement. By definition, that comes from the people, NOT the government? I just watched 9/11, "Press For The Truth" and, certainly, I am more skeptical of this administration than ever before. Before I saw it, I only thought that they were liars. Hasn't Karen, George and the rest of them heard about "preaching to the choir?" The rest of us, perhaps, think they ought to go read "the emperor's new clothes!"