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Commentary: Karen Hughes

By Lee Cullum, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Who can blame Karen Hughes for folding her tent and heading home to Austin? No matter how hard she worked, that boulder she pushed up the hill, over and over, at some cost to her own personal life and reputation, always came tumbling down again, inevitably, inexorably relentlessly. Of course she must have known when she accepted a job that already had daunted two strong women -Charlotte Beers and Margaret Tutwiler -that public diplomacy in the current situation is truly a mission impossible. But who better than she, a long-time lieutenant of the president, trusted without question, to turn defeat, if not into victory, then into an acceptable semblance of global good will.

It was too late, however. George W. Bush was too entrenched in a nightmare of his own making for Hughes to get to the core of the trouble. Nonetheless, she accomplished some useful things. So said Judy Milestone of Atlanta, who served on the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy created by Congress in 2003. Hughes promoted citizen diplomacy and encouraged Business for Diplomatic Action, a group based in San Francisco from which a great deal more can be expected.

Certainly, Milestone conceded that Hughes was hampered by the obvious, immovable obstacle - it's the policy, stupid - but even so, some steps could have been taken, she argued, that would have improved America's standing in the world despite near universal condemnation of the war in Iraq.

First, President Bush could have closed Guantanamo. This would have had high symbolic importance and done much to repair the damage done by holding prisoners there much too long under circumstances that are much too murky. I heard a former military chaplain say at the beginning of the war in Iraq that under circumstances as extreme as those following September 11, excessive actions often are taken, but they usually right themselves within a reasonable period of time. That, regrettably, did not happen at Guantanamo.

Now, according to the New York Times, there's talk in the administration of allowing legal representation at detention hearings and federal judges, rather than the military, to decide whether suspects should be held. This would be an improvement, of course, but putting an end to Guantanamo months ago would have had a far more beneficial impact on the way the United States is viewed by other nations.

Another approach that would have been helpful, said Milestone, is a serious investigation of the Abu Graib problem at the upper levels of the military and government, not just show trials of lesser lights. This would have impressed upon the world the will in Washington to conduct its affairs according to international standards of decent behavior.

Whether Karen Hughes could have affected these issues is doubtful. Her influence never extended as far in the White house as it needed to for her, and thus the country, to succeed in the vital enterprise she undertook. She was a voice of reason in the first eighteen months of the Bush administration, but never a match for Karl Rove. No doubt she tried to be the same this time around, but the fates were against her from the start. That is a tragedy, for her, the President, and the nation.

Lee Cullum hosts the monthly program, C.E.O., on KERA 13.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.