Can you please give us an update on the United States’ overseas ‘public diplomacy’ campaign?

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Yes, but only because you said “please.”

After 9/11, (the people who make important decisions for) President Bush figured out that the United States needed to do something about its poor reputation overseas, particularly its reputation within Arab and Muslim countries.

The idea goes something like this: If we can lower the ambient level of anti-Americanism around the world, al-Qaeda’s human resources department will have a slightly harder time finding recruits. If sending the military after terrorists is like swatting at mosquitoes, public diplomacy is supposed to be akin to draining the swamp in which the mosquitoes breed. Or something like that.

In late 2001, Dubya & Co. kicked off “Operation Hate U.S. Less” by appointing Charlotte Beers undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. People who were worried that the Bush administration’s efforts at public diplomacy wouldn’t amount to more than a half-assed marketing campaign had their worst fears realized with Beers’ appointment. Beers had no experience in international relations. She was a retired ad executive whose career peak to that point was convincing dandruff sufferers they could safely wear black turtlenecks if they used Head & Shoulders.

Touting Beers’ knack for convincing people, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “She got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice, so there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something.”

Beers was a bust. Her “America is awesome”-themed ads were laughed at in the Middle East. Hi International, the teen-focused “lifestyle” magazine Beers started and distributed throughout the Middle East, was also a failure. When it came to convincing Arabs and Muslims not to join anti-American jihad groups, articles like last year’s “Sharp Dressed Men” (which begins with the words “Real men moisturize”) just weren’t doing the trick.

In March 2003, right around when the Iraq invasion happened, Beers left her post. By that point, the Bush administration was too busy bungling the Iraq invasion to pay much attention to public diplomacy. Beers’ replacement, one-time U.S. ambassador to Morocco Margaret Tutwiler, wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until December 2003. She quit after just four months on the job, by most accounts accomplishing somewhere between nothing and next-to-nothing.

One year ago this month, I wrote about how, after leaving the position open for nearly one year, President Bush nominated one of his top political advisers, Karen Hughes, to take the job. According to the conventional wisdom at the time (which I’m ashamed to admit that I fell for), Bush appointing such a close adviser to the job indicated he was finally taking public diplomacy seriously.

I was wrong. Appointing Hughes and trumpeting her appointment to anyone who would listen was just a publicity stunt. Hughes didn’t even take the job for another five months after her high-profile announcement. Time magazine reported that between March 14, 2005 (the day of her appointment) to Aug. 15 (the day she went on the State Department payroll) Hughes was busy earning $450,000 giving speeches for up to $50,000 each.

Not even the person who Bush appointed to take public diplomacy seriously was taking it seriously.

Shortly after taking her post, Hughes hopped on a plane with some reporters and went on a “listening” tour of the Middle East. The tour was a disaster. Even though she was speaking to and “listening” to pre-screened audiences, her condescending, borderline-retarded remarks (“I am a mom, and I love kids. I love all kids. And I understand that is something that I have in common with the Turkish people”) were dismissed by audiences who, surprise-surprise, wanted to grill her about the Iraq War.

I hate the way these foreigners try to shift conversations away from Bush administration talking points. It’s so un-American.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the woman. To her credit, Hughes appears to have learned an important lesson from her initial failure. When she went on her second Middle East listening tour last month, she didn’t take any reporters with her.