President Bush has no advisor more loyal and less self-serving than Karen Hughes. As governor of Texas he implicitly trusted the former Dallas television reporter turned press secretary with the tending of his image and words. She was mother hen of his persona. In the White House, Hughes devoted heart and soul to Bush as his communications director, until, suddenly, she returned home to Texas in 2002, citing her son’s homesickness. There were reports that Karl Rove, jealous of power, had been sniping at her.
From her exile, Hughes produced a memoir, “Ten Minutes From Normal,” which is deeply uninteresting and unrevealing. Amid long stretches of uninformative banality lie unselfconscious expressions of religiosity, accounts of how she inserted Psalms 23 and 27 into Bush’s speeches after Sept. 11, 2001, and an entire page of small type reproducing a sermon she delivered on Palm Sunday aboard Air Force One. She quotes then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice: “I think Karen missed her calling. She can preach.”
After two undersecretaries of state for public diplomacy resigned in frustration in the face of the precipitous loss of U.S. prestige around the globe, Bush found a new slot for Hughes this year. She may be the most parochial person ever to hold a senior State Department appointment, but the president has confidence she can rebrand the United States.
This week, Hughes embarked on her first trip as undersecretary. Her initial statement resembled an elementary school presentation: “You might want to know why the countries. Egypt is of course the most populous Arab country … Saudi Arabia is our second stop. It’s obviously an important place in Islam and the keeper of its two holiest sites … Turkey is also a country that encompasses people of many different backgrounds and beliefs, yet has the — is proud of the saying that ‘all are Turks.’”
Hughes appeared to be one of the pilgrims satirized by Mark Twain in his 1869 book, “Innocents Abroad,” about his trip on “The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion.” “None of us had ever been anywhere before; we all hailed from the interior; travel was a wild novelty to us … We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans — Americans!”
Hughes’ simple, sincere and unadorned language is pellucid in revealing the administration’s inner mind. Her ideas on terrorism and its solution are straightforward. “Terrorists,” she said in Egypt at the start of her trip, “their policies force young people, other people’s daughters and sons, to strap on bombs and blow themselves up.” Somehow, magically, these evildoers coerce the young to commit suicide. If only they would understand us, the tensions would dissolve. “Many people around the world do not understand the important role that faith plays in Americans’ lives,” she said. When an Egyptian opposition leader inquired why President Bush mentions God in his speeches, she asked him “whether he was aware that previous American presidents have also cited God, and that our Constitution cites ‘one nation under God.’ He said, ‘Well, never mind.’”
With these well-meaning arguments, Hughes has provided the exact proof for what Osama bin Laden has claimed about American motives. “It is stunning … the extent [to which] Hughes is helping bin Laden,” Robert Pape told me. Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who has conducted the most extensive research into the backgrounds and motives of suicide terrorists, is the author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” and recently briefed the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center. “If you set out to help bin Laden,” he said, “you could not have done it better than Hughes.”
Pape’s research debunks the view that suicide terrorism is the natural byproduct of Islamic fundamentalism or some “Islamo-fascist” ideological strain independent of certain highly specific circumstances. “Of the key conditions that lead to suicide terrorism in particular, there must be, first, the presence of foreign combat forces on the territory that the terrorists prize. The second condition is a religious difference between the combat forces and the local community. The religious difference matters in that it enables terrorist leaders to paint foreign forces as being driven by religious goals. If you read Osama’s speeches, they begin with descriptions of the U.S. occupation of the Arabian Peninsula, driven by our religious goals, and that it is our religious purpose that must confronted. That argument is incredibly powerful not only to religious Muslims but secular Muslims. Everything Hughes says makes their case.”
The undersecretary’s blundering grand tour of the Middle East may be the latest incarnation of “Innocents Abroad.” “The people stared at us everywhere, and we stared at them,” Twain wrote. “We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.”
The stakes, however, are rather different than they were on “The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion.” Hughes’ trip “would be a folly,” Pape says, “were it not so dangerous.”