Special Coverage
4:16 pm
Mon May 2, 2011

Austinite Karen Hughes Tried To Convince Muslims That Osama Was A Bad Guy

Austin resident Karen Hughes served as a close political advisor to President George W. Bush for many years, both when he was Texas Governor and then when he moved to the White House. When she was appointed as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy in 2005, Hughes was put in charge of trying to improve the perception of America abroad.

"One of the things that we worked in public diplomacy to highlight around the world was the fact that a lot of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's victims were, in fact, innocent Muslims," Hughes told KUT News.

"That really changed much of the world's opinion of Osama bin Laden," she said. "For a couple of years [after 9/11] he was still very popular, but wide numbers of people began disapproving of him as they learned more about his attacks and the fact they were directed not only against Americans, but against Muslim populations."

Some observers were fiercely critical of Hughes' efforts in the Middle East, likening "public diplomacy" with "propaganda" and suggesting the former White House communications director was more interested in papering over America's perceived foreign policy transgressions than working to ameliorate them.

In an article published shortly after Hughes was named undersecretary, journalist Fred Kaplan skewered the appointment in a piece on Slate.

It's hard to say what kinds of programs—which cultural messengers or emblems of freedom—might effectively counter the hatred and suspicions of today's foes. But Karen Hughes would be spending her time more wisely trying to come up with some.

The New York Times reported on mixed reviews of Hughes' first Middle Eastern trip, with regional commentators describing her as "patronizing," but some students of public diplomacy giving her credit for listening to her critics.

Ms. Hughes departs from one common policy among top American officials. She appears on Al Jazeera, the popular Arabic satellite television station accused by the Pentagon of cooperating with anti-American extremists. This past week, Ms. Hughes sparred with a Jazeera moderator over Iraq, Israel and democracy in the Middle East. "I came here because I respect Al Jazeera," she said. "You have a large audience, and I wanted to address that audience to communicate with the Arab world."

A Pew Research Center survey from 2010 suggests many Middle Easterners still have a negative view of the United States. Only 17 percent of people in Egypt and Turkey had a favorable view of the U.S. in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The favorable rating was 21 percent in Jordan and 52 percent in Lebanon.

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