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John Brown: Elected Silence Sing to Me

Elected Silence Sing to Me: Karen Hughes on the Middle East

By John Brown
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 18 July 2006

In recent days, Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, whose job is to explain US policy abroad, has remained silent. The Spinstress of the Decider, known for her garrulity and love of being in front of a camera, has chosen to be out of the media limelight. With many in the Arab world blaming the United States for the situation in the Middle East, she has said nothing about American goals in the region. Gone, at least for now, are her vapid proclamations about US "transformational public diplomacy." Nor has she uttered another saccharine word about the need to foster common interests and values throughout the world. And - surprise! - she has not gone on another so-called "listening tour" in the Middle East.

Why is Ms. Hughes silent? One can only speculate about this, as answers are not forthcoming from the State Department, whom I contacted in preparation for this piece. A Mr. Justin Wilson said "right" when I noted that Ms. Hughes had said nothing on the situation in the Middle East, then transferred me to an employee whose answering machine said he was out of the office until July 24. I am still waiting, at this writing, for answers to the two messages I have left to other State functionaries. Silence reigns. Talk about 'round-the-clock public diplomacy, rapid reaction to breaking events! There seems to be, in Ms. Hughes's shop, no sense of urgency to the public-diplomacy dimension of the situation in the Middle East.

So it's possible Ms. Hughes - and her aides - are just taking a break from 100-degree Washington, in cooler, more comfortable places, away from the DC bureaucratic turf wars. Well, everyone deserves a vacation, even during critical situations overseas affecting American interests. But that's not an adequate explanation for the silence of the Bush team, even if one assumes, as Frank Rich does in his article in Sunday's New York Times, that the administration has no real foreign policy plan, which of course would allow everyone on Dubya's team to take a rest on the ranch when a crucial part of the world blows up.

More seriously, maybe what's really behind Ms. Hughes's taciturnity is that the administration has decided, as it did so efficiently during Bush's first term, to stay "on message" - the message being, in the case of US policy toward Israel's military actions in Gaza and Lebanon, practically no message at all, except that Israel can do just about everything that it wants to "defend itself."

One of the most intelligent commentators on the Middle East, Marc Lynch, puts it this way in his blog: "American public diplomacy has been virtually invisible on [Israel's actions in Gaza and Lebanon], at a time when it is more urgently needed than ever. I can understand this - you have to have a policy if you want to try to explain or defend it, and right now the Bush administration doesn't seem to have any policy at all beyond supporting Israel and issuing calls for 'restraint,' which Israel promptly and publicly rejects. And what administration official wants to subject him or herself to tough Arab questioning on live TV right now?"

In all fairness, one Arabic-speaking US official has expressed, as best he can, the administration's position on the current Middle East crisis on the media - Alberto Fernandez, Director of Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department. But Fernandez, for all his talents and knowledge of what is, to Americans, an esoteric language, is a relatively low-ranking official, and not likely to get much international attention given his place in the State Department pecking order. Could that be the reason behind letting him speak for the administration?

Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Elected silence, sing to me" is one of the better-known verses in the English language. While Ms. Hughes's evidently deliberate loss of words regarding the Middle East at this time is in many ways disturbing, it is still refreshingly (one is tempted to say strangely) honest. Like the administration she represents, she basically has nothing to say, and is saying nothing. For once, she cannot be accused of hypocrisy.


John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who practiced public diplomacy for over twenty years, now compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press Review," which can be obtained free by email at johnhbrown30 @

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