More questions than answers from diverse PRSA speakers

Early last week I attended the Public Relations Society’s International Conference in Philadelphia. I was impressed that the organization had scheduled diverse keynote speakers and was eager to hear what they had to say.

We heard from Mia Farrow, who talked about Darfur.

Tim Russert talked about the need for genuine dialogue about issues, and an end to political gamesmanship and partisan politics.

Karen Hughes shared the State Department’s efforts at sharing the “American brand” with citizens of other countries.

I thought Russert made the most sense. Even so, his actions didn’t seem to be completely consistent with his words. Russert was among many speakers last week deriding media coverage of celebrities in crisis and spending news resources on side-show circuses packaged as journalism (my words, not Russert’s). Even so, moments before he took the stage in Philly, I was in my hotel room watching MSNBC. Russert was doing a phoner on the morning show — talking about his Sunday interview with the Comedy Central celebrity who thinks he’s gonna run for president.

Two days ago, Karen Hughes abruptly resigned her State Department post, effective the end of the year. This educated speculation from the LA Times:

Her departure closes out a two-year effort that gave a high profile to the administration’s efforts to improve America’s reputation overseas but did not reverse a continuing decline that was caused in large part by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and other Bush foreign policy decisions…

Hughes, who had never been to the Middle East before taking the job, drew criticism for some of her higher-profile initiatives. Her highly publicized “listening tour” of three Middle East countries in 2005 was widely condemned in the region as clumsy and patronizing. In one appearance, Saudi women chided Hughes for focusing on their nation’s restrictions against women driving cars.

More recently, Hughes appointed a pair of U.S. sports stars, baseball Hall of Fame member Cal Ripken Jr. and ice-skating champion Michelle Kwan, as “public diplomacy envoys” to travel and make public appearances.

But Wittes said that some of Hughes’ less visible efforts, such as her moves to make Arabic-speaking diplomats available to the Arabic media, were more productive.
Nonetheless, the image of the United States has continued to dive in many countries throughout the period, not only in the Middle East but in Europe and East Asia. In the last two years it has continued to fall in Britain, France and Germany, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

In a report issued last spring, the survey said that more than 75% of Palestinians, Turks, Egyptians and Jordanians express unfavorable opinions of the United States.

Bush confidant quits administration – Los Angeles Times


I was — and continue to be — puzzled that Karen Hughes addressed nearly 4,000 public relations professionals and students 24 hours following a moving presentation by Mia Farrow, yet this high-ranking State Department representative did not bring up Darfur. Hughes discussed a number of international outreach programs but she never brought up the tragic circumstances in Darfur. Farrow never criticized the U.S. government directly. In fact, her most pointed attacks were directed at China. She challenged citizens and American corporations to pressure China to force the killing to stop. Farrow’s advice was to target the Olympic games.

I’ve been wondering why the U.S. can’t put a halt to random killing in Darfur. I’m certain there’s a rationale — from a diplomatic and/or military perspective. Karen Hughes never, ever said a word about why we can’t help, what African nations think of us, and what her communications team in the State Department plans to do to deflect blame, assert responsibility, or demand change.

This evening I ran across an opinion piece from a prominent minister who regularly attacks the Bush administration. Jim Wallis discusses the situation in Darfur.

It’s a year later, and not much has changed. Ceasefires are announced and then violated, peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups begin and end, U.N. resolutions are passed – but the terror, rapes, and killing goon.

This week, Michael Abramowitz of The Washington Post wrote a long piece on how the U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions. His conclusion?

Many of those who have tracked the conflict over the years, including some in his own administration, say Bush has not matched his words with action, allowing initiatives to drop because of inertia or failure to follow up, while proving unable to mobilize either his bureaucracy or the international community.

He documents that, despite the president’s strong passion, internal problems of a turnover of top administration staff on Darfur, covert and overt opposition by officials throughout the bureaucracy, and a lack of follow-through on decisions made have prevented stronger action.

Three international factors have also played a role:

Bush has complained privately that his hands are tied on Darfur because, with the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot be seen as “invading another Muslim country.”

Some U.S. officials saw another reason for the reluctance to get involved: preserving a burgeoning intelligence relationship with Khartoum, which had begun sharing critical information about al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.

The Sudanese government has resisted cooperation at every step in the saga and has been shielded at the United Nations by China, its main international protector.

So…the U.S. can’t stop the killing in Darfur because the Muslims already hate us and would consider invading a third predominantly Islamic nation as an act of aggression? And the murderers in Darfur know that they can kill without fearing the wrath of the United States — which was once perceived to be the protector of societies who couldn’t protect themselves? We saved Europe from Hitler and Stalin. Um, isn’t that why most nations respected the U.S. following World War II? Because we were courageous and bold in the face of evil? Yes, I’m oversimplifying just a bit in an effort to make a point.

Hughes and her initiatives nearly doubled the budget for public diplomacy, to $900 million per year. Apparently, throwing money at our public image didn’t help much in the past 2 years. Maybe we should just do the right thing and use every diplomatic, political, and military means at our disposal to stop the killing in Darfur. Then maybe we would begin to regain some international respect.

By regaining respect and trust, perhaps we wouldn’t so desperately need to make deals with Khartoum along the lines of “we’ll give you information if you look the other way on this little habit of massacring innocent people.”

By regaining respect and trust, perhaps we’d stare down China. Because we’re smarter. Because the world is on our side. Because we’re right.

Right now, I don’t feel much like a righteous American. Somehow I wonder if our universal symbol of courage — the bald eagle — is as proud and dignified as it used to be.

Could Tim Russert please explain the realities to me? Not the propaganda or the spin. Just the truth. No matter how complex. Just a reasonable, believable explanation — a discussion of options and long and short-term implications of potential actions.

Because this no action and no discussion is extremely disheartening.

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