Most of the reputed authorities reached by reporters gave longtime George W. Bush ally Karen Hughes mixed reviews when she announced that she would be leaving her post as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.
The person in that position is supposed to help the rest of the world to like us, or at least to understand and respect what the United States is trying to accomplish in the world. In other words, to burnish the U.S. image abroad.
In that respect, Hughes was not a success. Public opinion polls show that the image of the U.S. declined precipitously among Muslims and in most of the rest of the world and did not improve during the two years Hughes was trying to burnish it.
But she did push institutional changes at the State Department that increased the budget for public diplomacy and might pay off in years to come.
In fairness to Hughes, and even accounting for the fact that being a professional political operative from Texas was not necessarily the best background for explaining the U.S. to people of radically different backgrounds and cultures she understood only fleetingly, she had an almost impossible job. Public diplomacy is the embodiment of “soft power,” the influence that arises from widespread respect for the institutions, traditions and ideals the United States has long tried to embody.
In a period when the U.S. under President Bush was almost exclusively using the “hard power” of military activity to “persuade” other countries to go along with U.S. aims, soft power necessarily took a back seat.
It was too much to expect even Muslins who have little or no sympathy for violent jihadists to develop much love for a country that was occupying one Muslim country (Iraq) by force, being the lead player in the occupation of another (Afghanistan) and propping up the increasingly unpopular dictator of another (Pakistan). It is no reflection on the sincerity of U.S. leaders’ desire to help other countries move toward freedom and democracy to note that any country is going to resent more than love a foreign power that is seen as an occupying force.
Until the United States returns to the kind of foreign policy George W. Bush seemed to endorse when he first ran for president — a more humble, modest approach that recognizes that nation-building is best done by those who actually live in the nation involved — the United States is more likely to be feared and resented than loved and appreciated.