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Resignation Spurs Doubts About US Public Diplomacy

Powell Resignation Spurs New Doubts About US Public Diplomacy

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Report

Wednesday 09 May 2007

The departure of one of the few Bush administration appointees with "some 'native' familiarity" with the Middle East - coupled with the release of a new survey revealing growing doubts among Americans about their country's reputation in the rest of the world - is triggering yet another round of criticism of US public diplomacy efforts.

Dina Habib Powell, the highest-ranking Arab-American in the administration, is resigning from the State Department to join Goldman Sachs Group, a leading Wall Street investment house.

As assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs and deputy to Undersecretary of State Karen P. Hughes, Powell played a major role in efforts to improve America's reputation in the face of an anti-US wave in the Arab world triggered by the US invasion of Iraq. Her parents emigrated from Egypt and settled in Texas when Powell was four years old and could not speak English.

At the same time, a just-released survey commissioned by Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), reported that "substantial majorities of Americans express concern about our nation's declining global reputation and believe it is more important than ever ... to repair relationships and build new bridges with the rest of the world."

The survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted for BDA by Zogby International last month found that 76 percent are concerned about America's global reputation, 74 percent believe the US is viewed negatively by people in other countries and 66 percent say US relations with the rest of the world are on the wrong track.

Against this background, Truthout interviewed University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy Senior Fellow John Brown, a former State Department official who compiles the daily "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review." (LINK). In 2003, Brown resigned after more than 20 years as a foreign service officer, in a protest against the invasion of Iraq.

Here are some of his views on the state of US public diplomacy.


Truthout: You have written about Karen Hughes and what she calls her "diplomacy of deeds." Her focus on deeds suggests that she is not, at heart, interested in the US establishing a dialogue with the world - perhaps the most important function of America's public diplomacy. If she is not interested in a dialogue with the world, what happened to her ideas about "listening tours?"

Brown: The listening tours, like so many "new initiatives," seem to have vanished from Ms. Hughes's priorities. Perhaps she has the illusion of thinking that she is now sufficiently familiar with the Middle East, certainly an area that cannot be understood by a quickie "listening tour," but by years of study and travel (not to speak of language study). Interestingly, the one person on Hughes's staff with some "native" familiarity with the area - Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Dina Powell, who was born in Egypt - has decided to leave the State Department to work on Wall Street.

No matter how much she travels overseas, Ms. Hughes's true focus all along has been US domestic politics. As her breathless autobiography, "Ten Minutes from Normal," suggests, she sees life as a perpetual political campaign. Indeed, her so-called "diplomacy of deeds" - ostensibly meant to win foreigners over by charitable acts such as handing out sewing machines - is at heart an effort to reassure Americans of how good, kind and compassionate we are toward the rest of the world under the Bush administration. Ms Hughes, spin-stress par excellence, handed out sewing machines when she was in the Philippines.

What Karen is really telling us - through the US media coverage she makes sure her "deeds" obtain - is that, no matter what bad things these awful terrorists (the outside world) say about us, we are God's chosen people because of our generosity. And don't forget to support Bush and vote Republican.

As Ms. Hughes herself wrote, in her usual saccharine style, in The Washington Times (December 20, 2006):

At this time of year, when people are called on to care for the hungry, sick and abandoned, Americans should know we are giving the gift of hope to thousands of people whose names we will never know. And I will continue to advocate we do even more, because the diplomacy of deeds serves our own national interests and the people of every nation.

Truthout: Given the increasingly negative attitudes toward US foreign policy, as revealed by repeated opinion surveys, is there anything positive that any PD czarina could do to positively influence world opinion? If so, what?

Brown: Speaking of deeds, what the Bush administration should do to influence world public opinion positively is to change drastically its foreign policy. GITMO should be closed. Real efforts to end the war in Iraq diplomatically should be undertaken. The ill-conceived anti-missile missile project in Eastern Europe should be dropped. Far more Iraqi refugees should be admitted to the United States. The term "war on terror" should be abandoned. The list goes on and on.

Most of the world does not "hate" America as a country or civilization. People overseas view us with mixed feelings. They admire some aspects of the United States, and others are not as attractive to them. I would suggest that at the top of what foreigners dislike (if not, in many cases, despise) about the US is the Bush administration and its disastrous foreign policy, which even Americans now realize has done enormous damage to international understanding. George W. Bush is a confirmation of foreigners' worst feelings about the United States and its role in the world.

Truthout: What can you tell our readers about how our embassy people around the world view Ms. Hushes and our PD efforts?

Brown: As you know, I left the Foreign Service in March 2003 in opposition to Mr. Bush's war plans against Iraq, so I may not be the best source on how our embassy staff around the world currently views Ms. Hughes. I am, however, still in contact with diplomats who practice and have practiced public diplomacy, and what I can say is that many are greatly disturbed not only by Bush's foreign policy, but by the scarcity of resources available for public diplomacy.

Hughes may talk on and on about how important public diplomacy is, but her "diplomacy of deeds" does not seem to extend to getting adequate funding to carry out essential public diplomacy programs ranging from educational exchanges to radio broadcasts.

Let me also note that Ms. Hughes was a member of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) that led the campaign to convince the American people to go to war with Iraq. It would be interesting to know more about Hughes's role in this secretive propaganda operation. She owes it to the American people - and the world - to disclose the truth about this. (See also... What’s WHIG all About? An Open Letter to Karen Hughes ).


In a related development came the results of the survey commissioned by Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), an organization of multinational American companies working to improve the standing of America in the world by engaging the private sector in public diplomacy efforts.

"When you have results at the 70 percent or 75 percent level, that's about as close to a universal consensus as you're going to get," said Keith Reinhard, BDA's founder and chairman.

"Americans are saying that our relationship with the rest of the world is broken but they see a way out." Six in ten of those surveyed say it is "more important than ever for Americans to reach out and build new bridges to people from other countries and cultures" - as opposed to three in ten who say Americans must "build fences around our country to keep out illegal immigrants, terrorists and foreigners in general."

The survey found that "An overwhelming majority of voters (69 percent) identified three changes that will have a major impact on the current situation: changing the way the US government conducts public diplomacy; placing more emphasis on social studies and world history courses in American schools, and changing US foreign policy."

Other actions favored by majorities: expanding international exchange programs, encouraging Americans to learn foreign languages, and getting US corporations involved in public diplomacy.

The poll was conducted for BDA by Zogby International. Most of its findings appear to present a mirror image of the attitudes of foreigners toward the US.

Dina Powell, 33, joined the State Department from the White House, where she directed the presidential personnel office. Before assuming her post at State two years ago, she advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on staffing her team at Foggy Bottom.

According to The Washington Post, Powell is expected to become a managing director of Goldman Sachs, one of the world's leading investment banking organizations. She will become director of global corporate engagement, a newly created position, and will oversee the firm's charitable activities and serve as Goldman's principal liaison to philanthropic and nongovernmental organizations.

"I'm really sorry to lose her. She is fantastic," Rice told the Post. "She had so many ideas. There are people who have ideas but can't execute them. She really executed them."

Rice lauded Powell's creation of public-private partnerships, which brought corporations together with the government to assist other countries, such as in Lebanon. The US-Lebanon partnership, formed after the Israeli-Hezbollah war last summer that stirred anger against the US, is led by a group of corporate executives who traveled to Lebanon with Powell to promote initiatives to create jobs and rebuild homes.

Despite the tense relationship between the US and Iran, Powell is also credited with resurrecting people-to-people exchanges with the Islamic Republic, bringing Iranian medical doctors to the United States and sending a US wrestling team to Iran.

The Post reported that in her White House role, Powell made recommendations on hiring and was one of four individuals - the others were President Bush, Vice President Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove - who knew whether a candidate was being accepted for one of the 4,000 jobs filled by the White House.

Rice told the Post that Powell "won't be replaceable" but Hughes is looking at potential candidates. "There is a lot now in place," she said. "For the next 18 months it is now a matter of institutionalizing it."

John Brown was a senior member of the Foreign Service who served in the State Department for more than 20 years, primarily in Eastern Europe and Russia. On March 10, 2003 he submitted his letter of resignation to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, saying, "I cannot in good conscience support President Bush's war plans against Iraq."

Brown's letter said, "The president has failed to explain clearly why our brave men and women in uniform should be ready to sacrifice their lives in a war on Iraq at this time; to lay out the full ramifications of this war, including the extent of innocent civilian casualties; to specify the economic costs of the war for ordinary Americans; to clarify how the war would help rid the world of terror; (and) to take international public opinion against the war into serious consideration.

He wrote, "Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century."


Brown's Public Diplomacy daily roundup is available free on request to JohnBrown30 @

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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