Three months ago, President Bush appointed Karen Hughes, former White House communications director, to the revolving-door position of undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy.
That was pretty much the last we heard of it. Hughes has not been submitted for confirmation and is not expected in Washington until the fall.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has awarded three contracts to improve its so-called psychological operations, at a price tag of about $300 million. The Washington Post, in reporting that story, noted the disparity between the Pentagon's efforts and the languishing initiatives at the State Department.
The lack of progress is not only discouraging, it's practically negligent. America's image problems in the Muslim world have only worsened in recent months, while our ability to predict incipient conflicts is no better. Hughes' high-profile presence in the role is needed to convince the world that we care deeply about the problem, are directing significant resources toward solving it, and are vigorously pursuing better relationships with the region and its people.
Some have detected Hughes' fingerprints on Laura Bush's recent junket to the region, and the middling success of the trip - even given the considerable assets of the first lady's personal charisma and sincerity - should be a clear signal that the problems are growing dire. Discreet counsel of the kind that may have guided Mrs. Bush's trip is a campaign tactic, not the kind of public declaration of intent that is needed to propel a holistic strategy.
To start with, Hughes should be working hard to assemble the necessary brain trust to pull off a new plan. "What Hughes could do is rally the best corporate and college people with knowledge of the region to the cause," says Wes Pedersen of the Public Affairs Council. While not an expert on the Middle East (and clearly she must be fully indoctrinated in situ to fully appreciate the complexities of the region and the situation), Hughes can be a necessary catalyst for changing and restructuring the operation. So what are we waiting for?
A bright spot on this bleak landscape is the appointment of Dina Habib Powell, who is expected to be confirmed soon as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, eventually reporting to Hughes. Powell, born in Egypt and raised mostly in the US, speaks Arabic fluently.
Her nomination is the best sign so far that the administration at least comprehends its deficiencies in grasping the cultural nuances that can make or break relationships.
But as at least one pundit pointed out in newspaper reports of Powell's appointment, just because someone is speaking Arabic doesn't mean they are speaking the language. Sound bites and personality are not enough to solve these problems. While there has been some acknowledgement of the dilemmas by the administration, the lack of timeliness in moving ahead on the Hughes appointment sends a louder message, one the Bush administration cannot afford to broadcast. Talk of restructuring and reforming these programs is, for now, just talk. The apparent lack of urgency to confirm the leader is telling everyone, Arabs and Americans alike, that improving relationships with the Muslim world is just not a priority.