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ICG Risk Blog - [ A modern Charge of the Light Brigade: Karen Hughes' brief to invert Islam's opinion of the US ]

A modern Charge of the Light Brigade: Karen Hughes' brief to invert Islam's opinion of the US

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Hurricane Katrina accompanied Karen Hughes to the Middle East, adding yet another layer of dismissive opinion of any US action. The inept US response to the storm was seen in the European and Arab press to have humbled the US and shown it to be a less powerful nation than many had thought. (It is my opinion that we will see secondary effects in actions of various anti-US factions that are emboldened by a perceived weakness, i.e., perception is reality. I further believe that Katrina submerged the earlier US effort to curry pan-Muslim favor in its response to humanitarian relief after the 2004 Indonesian tsunami.)

Hughes has been given the most impossible of briefs, a modern Charge of the Light Brigade as it were, and it is to her credit that she commenced it. (Note that I said 'commenced' rather than 'undertook' as this is a generational effort against which US strategic interests are in direct opposition and requires a continuity of intent, action and positive reinforcement for which the US has little prior history.)

I must also suppose that US diplomatic and subordinated military policy will not square General John Abizaid's recent testimony to the effect that the US must change how it is "organized to make it more effective at building democracy abroad":

"It is important [that] we recognize the global threat that al-Qaida presents to the United States and to the civilized nations of the world. We are not yet organized to the extent that we need to be to fight this enemy, with coordinated and synchronized international and inter-agency action. We have time to do that, but we need to seize the moment and do it now."

That this testimony was only one among many comments between military and senate members is, to me, all the more sad that the US will not, possibly can not, make the changes to square the gap into which Hughes fell.

Only Hughes' position as a longtime Bush43 political counselor gained her the access and deference she received, i.e., she was treated as Bush's emissary and not as an Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. I liked that the tour was advertised as a "listening tour" instead of more instruction that fell on increasingly alienated ears, but I was extremely disappointed in her responses in the face of the criticisms that she received even from handpicked audiences supposedly assumed to be modestly pro-American. In other words, if someone has come to listen, then they should be sufficiently briefed so that they can listen intelligently, take the medicine without flinching, and not cause further missteps.

Anyone not living in a bubble should have know that the US still receives no credit for any shred of a pro-Palestinian policy, is still seen as hypocritical in its pro-democracy protestations in comparison to its actions, and is roundly condemned for it current 'occupation' of Iraq (which I admit might have been better had we been able to improve the economic and security lot of the ordinary Iraqi). I would be very interested in seeing the briefing documents that Hughes received as well as the after action reports of her three-country visit so as to have a sense of the delta between administration opinion and public fact. My fear is that the gap remains very high.

I leave it to the diligent reader to follow the links below that describe the increasingly bumpy reception Hughes received in three linchpin countries to US strategic, economic and political interests, Egypt (also here), Saudi Arabia (also here) and Turkey (also here).

My interest is more in defining my dream team solution for Hughes' task:

  • Move her office to Dubai: While her title says Public Diplomacy, it is really Islamic diplomacy. Recognize it and make a stroke that would lift eyebrows. Dubai is also one of the best protected and most affluent of Middle East states. If someone else is paying your rent, it is good duty.
  • Appoint her co-chair for the office: Appoint Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed as her co-chair. Actually I would prefer to have al-Rashed in the role, but Hughes is needed to make the "last mile" delivery to the White House. Al Rashed also resides in Dubai.

Al Rashed is a remarkable individual, the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat and now general manager of Al-Arabiya television. I find it instructive to follow what he writes and have cited him twice in this weblog. (See Overcoming a Muslim cultural view that can describe Saddam's capture as "The hero fell yesterday" and Putting aside militant ire, can Muslim moderates merely survive their conservatives?) Al Rashed's opinion piece in Asharq Al-Awsat is the best of all the reporting on Hughes that I have read. My dream team is that Al Rashed develops the message and Hughes delivers it and gains a semblance of compliance and cooperation.

Using Egypt whose citizens dislike us more than do Palestinians who have more reason, Rashed digs in -- and remember that he is head of the neutral, even pro-Western al Arabiya, not al Jazerra:

Even if the current US administration turned into to the world’s largest cleaning company, it would still be unable to clean its reputation and improve its image in the Arab world. The mission is nearly impossible. I say this in light of the visit by Karen Hughes, the presidential adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs at the US State Department, or in clearer terms, George W. Bush’s cleaner in the Arab region.

As a superpower, the United States has enough enemies and conflicts to keep it up at night. The minority, which believes that in politics no country can be totally good or wholly corrupt, finds itself unable to change reality…

Egypt suffers from a common problem whereby no one wants to be seen in public with Washington . The latter resembles a woman of ill-repute whom everyone wants to court but only in secret.

How can Karen Hughes change her country’s reputation, especially in Egypt, the country which the US administration has repeatedly backed and sponsored?

On the financial level, not much can be done, as Washington is unable to pay more than it already has. Politically, additional pressure [beyond that] already exerted, and which has achieved important results [would] be impossible.

It might be that Hughes believes she will meet journalists and reveal to then what they do not know about her country, its policies, and its president. She might say he was the first to recognize a Palestinian state, strongly encourage democracy and push governments to grant opposition parties more freedom. Bush also insisted local Arab market reform.

The diplomat is deluding herself if she thinks anyone will believe her or show interest in the good deeds she will enumerate. All those she will meet are sure to repeat one word, "Occupation, occupation, occupation". Her planned meetings will end as they started. Hughes will face an important decision: repair the US’s reputation, which is nearly impossible, or modify the country’s policies, also almost unfeasible. The price to pay will be a Palestinian state, a fundamentalist Iraq, and the ignoring of the region for the next twenty years.

Contrast that gulf with Abizaid's detailing of al Qaeda's long-term goals for a resurgent caliphate across the Muslim world - and remember that al Qaeda can and does operate with consistency of goals and efficiency of operations that transcend administrations. The US has no real understanding of the value and the urgency of Hughes' brief.

U.S. military questioned on Iraq
By Brian Knowlton
International Herald Tribune
SEPTEMBER 30, 2005

Abizaid Details al Qaeda's Long-Term Goals
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 29, 2005

Vastness of Karen Hughes's Task Looms Larger
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
September 29, 2005; 3:39 PM

Judge Orders Release of Abu Ghraib Photos
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
The Associated Press
September 29, 2005; 2:24 PM

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
Asharq Al-Awsat
28/09/2005

Turkish Women Blast Karen Hughes With Iraq War Criticism
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
September 28, 2005

U.S. Envoy's Message Falls Flat Again, This Time in Turkey
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
New York Times
September 28, 2005

Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
New York Times
September 28, 2005

Hughes Raises Driving Ban With Saudis
More Political Freedom For Women Also Urged
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
September 28, 2005

Reforms in Time, Bush Envoy Is Told
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
New York Times
September 27, 2005

The Karen Hughes Cleaning Service
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
Asharq Al-Awsat
26/09/2005

A Bush Envoy, Visiting Egypt, Defends U.S. Policies in Iraq
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
New York Times
September 26, 2005

Hughes Reaches Out Warily in Cairo
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
September 26, 2005

The East in the West
By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
New York Times
September 25, 2005

Gordon Housworth



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