“My Job Starts with the Truth”
Undersecretary of State and George W. Bush confidante Karen Hughes, 49, has the difficult job of improving America’s tarnished image in the world. SPIEGEL spoke with her about anti-American sentiment across the globe, unrest in the Muslim world and the truth.
US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs Karen Hughes: “Our opponents want to make this about faith, but it’s really about a political ideology.”
SPIEGEL: Madame Undersecretary, your job may be the toughest in the Bush Administration. Your task is to improve America’s image in the world. Do you sometimes feel like Sisyphus?
Hughes: I remember the morning after the president announced that he’d asked me to take on this task. I ran into the vice president and he looked at me and said: “Karen, my condolences, you’ve taken the toughest job in the government.” It’s a huge challenge. On the other hand, it’s also a great honor because I believe ours is a wonderful country.
SPIEGEL: Take a look at what is happening now: There is an uproar concerning new pictures showing atrocities in Abu Ghraib. And a United Nations report is demanding that Guantanamo be shut down.
Hughes: Those pictures are disgusting and, frankly, I’m embarrassed, as an American, to think that people around the world associate those pictures with our country. Those pictures are old and represent crimes for which many people have already been punished, including one who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in prison. We don’t want to be defined by those pictures, any more than the people of Germany would want your country to be defined by pictures of crimes. They don’t represent America. On the larger issue of Guantanamo, what to do with dangerous terrorists who wish to kill innocent Americans, Germans and others is a very difficult one, but we feel this report is fundamentally flawed. The authors of the report did not even accept the offer to visit Guantanamo. Our government has been wrestling with how to deal with terrorists who don’t wear a uniform, who don’t represent any state, who therefore don’t fit neatly under any international treaty or convention. Nonetheless, we are treating the detainees humanely and consistent with our laws and treaty obligations.
SPIEGEL: You could at least give them a fair trial.
Hughes: We have given fair reviews to these individuals and have released those we believe no longer pose a threat to the US or our allies. The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens, but we are very willing to listen to constructive suggestions of what we ought to do with the more than 400 terrorists who are a threat to us or who refuse to renounce their stated ambitions to kill Americans and others. I note that some of those who have been released have unfortunately returned to the fight.
SPIEGEL: Why is the government still refusing to release all of the Abu Ghraib pictures?
Hughes: The concern is that this will only spark further violence and therefore risk lives. These events took place several years ago now, they have been investigated and people have been punished. It would only further inflame a world that’s currently, as we’ve seen in the case of the cartoon situation, on edge. I’m looking at work that may take decades. For example, one of my biggest projects is how do we delegitimize terror? How do we discredit that as a tactic? How do we say, no matter how legitimate your grievance is, it is never appropriate to blow yourself up and kill lots of innocent civilians? We have to do with terror what was done to slavery. It was once widely accepted and it’s now an international pariah.
SPIEGEL: But Europe is deeply concerned that America has lost the moral high ground in dealing with these problems. After 9/11 almost the entire world stood behind the United States, but now we see an historic level of anti-Americanism. How could you squander this capital so quickly?
Hughes: I’ve seen some polling before September 11th, where many people around the world were expressing concern about America. We are a superpower, and with that comes some resentment. But we do need to do a better job of reaching out, of listening. That’s the reason the president asked me to take this job, as someone who is a close friend of his, who is able to travel and listen and come back and share what I hear with the president and the secretary of state.
SPIEGEL: So what do you hear in the Muslim world? Why is there so much hatred against America?
Hughes: That’s not an accurate depiction. I think they have concerns. Many view the war on terror as a war against Islam, but that is the message of our enemies, and that’s not true. Our efforts against terror are a common effort among people of all faiths and all nationalities to fight an ideology of hate. They want to impose tyranny on the rest of us. It’s very interesting that the people who know the agenda of the extremists best, the people of Afghanistan, reject it the most.
SPIEGEL: The deeper goal of your efforts is to create a more moderate Islam?
Hughes: It’s not for me to tell another person how to practice their faith. But I’m working to empower voices within the Muslim community who speak up to say that Islam is a religion of peace not of violence. We must isolate and marginalize the violent extremists and undermine their effort to appropriate Islam, that’s a very important strategic imperative. I’ve reached out extensively to our Muslim-American community, because I believe they are a very important bridge. We send them around the world, they have a lot more credibility to debate issues of faith than I do as a Christian woman. They make the case that all major faiths are teaching that life is precious and that you should not take innocent life. Our opponents want to make this about faith, but it’s really about a political ideology.
SPIEGEL: Was the cartoon issue a setback for these efforts?
Hughes: Sometimes the most strident voices are the ones that are heard loudest in today’s media market. Both Muslim and Western voices have spoken out that these protests should be peaceful. We can not allow the extremes to define this debate.
SPIEGEL: The cartoons showed up very rarely in American press.
Hughes: My country is a very large and diverse multicultural melting pot, and we have learned to speak respectfully about things others hold precious to them. There are certain words most civil people in America don’t use — racial and ethnic slurs — not because any law prohibits us, but because civility and decency and respect for our fellow citizens call us to a community responsibility. And the best place to debate these issues, by the way, is in democratic societies.
SPIEGEL: Are you going to Germany next week because the resentment against the Bush Administration is particularly high there?
Hughes: We believe this is a moment of promise for our historic friendship with Germany. You have a new chancellor; she had a wonderful visit in Washington. Americans really appreciated her candor and forthrightness. She, as someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, understands the importance of freedom, and we view Germany as an important partner in helping foster democracy that we believe will lead, ultimately to a safer world.
SPIEGEL: But even such a close friend as Angela Merkel is criticizing Guantanamo.
Hughes: I hope that the people of Germany would be able to recognize that we should not allow a difference over how we handle 490 terrorists who have pledged to kill Americans and others to divide our two countries and our historic friendship. I try to focus on the common interests and common values between America and Germany. We can not base our foreign policy only on a sense of common threats; we must also focus on our common interests and values.
SPIEGEL: A majority in the United States is supportive of a military strike against Iran as a last resort. The Europeans are very much concerned about that. Do you fear that this might lead to a new rift?
Hughes: Actually, we’ve been working very closely with our partners in the EU-3 (Germany, France and the United Kingdom). We hope that we are able to resolve this diplomatically — that is our fervent hope. We are on the same page. And I hope that Europe would understand that an American president can never take, in the end, a military option off the table.
SPIEGEL: Your government is spending another $75 million to support Iranian opposition groups and radio channels. In the old days of the Cold War that was called propaganda, what do you call it today?
Hughes: It is an effort to communicate with the people of Iran directly because we want to make very clear that we support their aspirations for freedom. We hope that one day the people of Iran will have a government that is worthy of them. What do you mean by propaganda?
SPIEGEL: One government influencing another via broadcasts …
Hughes: I don’t like the word influence and I don’t believe that’s my job. I view my job as engaging people. This is not Karen Hughes speaking at the world. This is Karen listening and our government listening and exchanging views. Yes, I want to put my country in the best possible light but my job starts with truth and so I don’t even like the word spin doctor, because that implies you concoct something. I’m communicating the truth.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes think that the Europeans are hypercritical with your friend, the president?
Hughes: I know him so well personally, that I sometimes am stunned by what I see as a caricature of him that has emerged in some press coverage. He’s a very warm person, he’s a very thoughtful person, he’s a very decent person. He cares deeply about people, he’s a wonderful leader. I think all of us should take a breath and be a little bit more charitable about how we view each other.
Interview conducted by Frank Hornig and Georg Mascolo.