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Would You Like A FTA With That Order

Would you like a free trade agreement with that order?

©Bill Grigsby - Eastern Oregon University

Karen Hughes, former TV reporter, George Bush’s longtime publicist, and now undersecretary for public diplomacy in the State Department, recently completed her first “listening tour” as part of her mission to repair the White House’s ravaged image in the Moslem world. And we learned many things. For instance:

She likes to drive cars; Being a mom is Job 1 (but not the book of Job!);
Being “imam” is hard to pronounce with a NASCAR accent;
Americans believe in God;
She’s all for women’s rights (like driving cars);

It isn’t clear what Karen Hughes learned, though, or even how she landed the job. You might as well ask how the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association became FEMA Director.

But that’s the easy answer. The real story is probably more worrisome than blatant cronyism, and lies in the seemingly unshaken belief of this White House that all problems—such as killing tens of thousands of Iraqis in the name of democracy, torturing detainees, most of whom the Red Cross said were innocent, and possibly poisoning their country for the next few millennia—are perception and PR problems, amenable to carefully orchestrated spin and propaganda. With a closed group that thinks it can market its way out of policy quagmires even as it actively works off camera to push forward the policies that created them, Karen Hughes is probably the perfect choice for global PR troubleshooter.

But how does someone with no diplomacy background become an overnight diplomat? Once you get past the arrogance of underestimating the difficulty of the job, you might as well ask how teenagers get hired to cook a fourth of America’s food. Sociologist George Ritzer coined the phrase ‘McDonaldization’ to characterize the adoption and diffusion of business principles first brought together in the fast food industry. The first principle is efficiency. In fast food, this means streamlined processes, drive-thrus or express lanes to handle customer control, limited number of menu options, and figuring out how to get customers to perform work for free (e.g., filling drinks, busing tables, checking out your own groceries, hauling your spent plutonium rods to the local landfills).

A drive for greater efficiency in American diplomacy can be seen in the American attempts to ‘frame’ the salient issues and simplify the discourse—motherhood, religion, freedom and democracy. Hey, we’re not so different, are we?? Geopolitical nuance complicates things. The propaganda campaign has succeeded in the U.S. Although standards of success may have diminished over time, from ‘90% approval ratings’ to ‘not impeached yet.’ Corporate journalism seems to have adopted a similar menu item reduction, precluding any reporting that might threaten media corporations’ clout, profit, or favor with a governing party trying to turn as much public property into private wealth as it can before the emus come home to roost.

The second principle of fast-food success is control. Employees are scripted because scripting statistically increases sales, and helps companies ‘brand’ their products and services. Procedures are automated or workers’ jobs dumbed down, both to reduce wages (and thus maximize workers’ expendability) and to increase predictability, which is the third principle. Apparently there is unlimited consumer demand for mediocre, yet predictable food. Or movies. Or TV or radio programming. Or public officials. Like diplomats. As the motivational poster sez: ‘Mediocrity: it takes a lot less time, and most people won’t notice the difference until it’s too late.’ And it’s definitely too late in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Karen Hughes thinks the time is right take message discipline global: 'If they [ambassadors] make statements based on something I sent them [Karen’s talking points],' they're not going to be called on the carpet.' A generous interpretation would be that she’s just acknowledging that ambassadors appointed by BushCo are underqualified to speak publicly. Hughes’ ‘Listening Tours’ use carefully scripted and audience-screened events, like the Social Security 2005 Scare Tour, in an effort to manage reporting. There are so many chores for the modern diplomat: make sure the photo-op camera angles are spot on, the backlighting is dramatic, the backdrop symbols and composition are all in place, so the White House-approved pictures can appear on the White House-approved nightly news. That sort of predictability is comforting, whether you’re trying to brand Disney movies, or American foreign policy. The fourth and last principle of McDonaldization is calculability, which implies both rational calculation and an emphasis of quantity over quality. This is pretty evident in the fast food example (wages, quarter-pounders, whoppers, the 64 oz ‘tub grade’ drink size). With respect to diplomacy, the talking points are based on focus group and survey research, designed to cloak a foreign policy that is increasingly aggressive, militaristic, self-serving, unilateral, and, well, undiplomatic.

Hughes’ saccharine description in her confirmation hearings would have made a true diplomat cringe: "I want to learn more about you and your lives, what you believe, what you fear, what you dream, what you value most” (i.e., so I can compile my spin lexicon). "We have to offer a positive vision of hope." Backed up, of course, by ‘rapid-response units’ for real-time spin response, and ‘forward-deploy regional SWAT teams’ for smear campaigns against critics. Over time, perhaps the strategy will involve putting foreign journalists on the State Dept. payroll. Recruiting Arabic speakers to come up with the language that sells otherwise unpopular policy. Funding think tanks to provide ‘experts’ to nightly news broadcasts. Creating some phony grassroots organizations, with names like “Iranians for American Values,” or “Moslems United against Evildoers,” or “Palestinians embracing a Sensible withdrawal from Jerusalem.” Flooding the end-of-the-week news shows with foot soldiers repeating the week’s talking points.

Her first listening tour didn’t go so well, perhaps because it’s hard to fake diplomacy, cultural competence, and knowledge of history and geopolitics when the foreign journalists aren’t following the script and don’t flinch at the first hint of confrontation. Or perhaps because it wasn’t a listening tour at all, but a forward-deploy marketing campaign. Maybe it’s good cop / bad cop anti-diplomacy, and Hughes is the warm-up act for John Bolton. But propaganda, like unwinnable war, is a long slog. Dismantling the Foreign Service and alienating an entire professional class, fortunately, takes time. Just ask Porter Goss at the CIA. Now even Peace Corps faces passive militarization. McDonald’s wasn’t an overnight sensation. But what if, over time, American diplomacy efforts resemble more and more a McDonald’s restaurant? Unskilled workers. A limited fare unhealthy ingredients. A huge advertising budget. Plenty of lures to hook customers on products that, consumed in even moderate doses, are bad for their health. Oh, and profit and franchising opportunities, let’s not forget that.

Perhaps this is hyperbole, overreaction. After all, look how well the BushCo formula has worked stateside. Our stage-managed president has been reading scripts and starring in photo-ops for the last six years, while teaming up with a republican-controlled Congress to use its power to force the most sweeping redistribution and concentration of wealth since the McKinley era. Yet even though mired in scandal and in full meltdown mode, the president, speaking in an ominous tone to reporters at a recent mini press conference, threatened that “the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to.” Memo to professional diplomats: Please don’t quit! We may see, shortly, the kind of unraveling that happens when loyalists’ fear of finding their next job outweighs the fear of losing their current one.

Before you ask if Americans can’t do better than a befuddled president who can’t understand why the script is no longer working: Would it be better if he were improvising, say in bilateral nucular talks with North Korea?? Inept diplomacy creates the need for both turd polishing and poop scooping. Karen Hughes seems to be out of her league on both counts.

One regrettable development in the fast food biz is that the privilege of serving America its obesity-friendly diet is no longer, alas, the exclusive domain of teenagers starting at the bottom of the employment ladder. As for the decaying state of American foreign policy, given the current governing junta, maybe survival as a nation of diminished stature, maybe another three years of unconvincing-yet-predictable bullshit, aren’t part of the worst-case scenario. In any case the countries of the world don’t appear to be lining up for a taste of McDiplomacy.

ENDS

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