Diplomacy: An accent on diplomacy

Communicating what Bush stands for is a tough sell.

bush 88 (photo credit: )
bush 88
(photo credit: )
The highest-ranking Arab-American in the State Department, and perhaps in the entire Bush administration, is a perky 31-year-old pregnant mother from Dallas with the Texas-sized mandate of trying to convince the Arab world not to hate America. It's a tall order even in the best of times, when jealousy and suspicion of cultural domination breeds widespread animosity toward the US. But now, with US forces hunkered down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and anti-American fervor palpable throughout the region, the job has become even more difficult. But it's a job that US President George W. Bush feels is crucially important. This is why he recently appointed Karen Hughes, one of his oldest and most trusted advisors, to the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs - State Department-speak for US public relations chief. It is also why he named Dina Habib Powell as Hughes' number 2. Powell is the daughter of Egyptian immigrants - her father was an Egyptian army captain - who came to the US searching for a better life when she was four years old. Hers is the type of story that Bush relishes: the immigrant, or child of immigrants, who comes to the US with little except the hope of a better life, but who, through talent, ambition and hard work, rises through the ranks to a position of prominence and prestige. Hers is also the type of story Bush wants to hold out to the Arab world as that which truly represents America. Powell, who speaks fluent Arabic, was in Israel for the first time this week along with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of the official US contingent attending the ceremonies commemorating Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Powell holds the titles Deputy Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. As such, she commands the largest departmental budget in the State Department: the unit that administers exchange programs - such as the Fulbright and Humphrey scholarships - that are deemed among the most effective tools of public diplomacy. She has also been used frequently by the administration to put a pleasant face and fluent, Egyptian-Arabic accent on White House Middle East policy. Powell describes her brief as "laying the foundation for what really is a struggle of ideas." In a bouncy, infections manner, she says during an interview crammed between a visit to a school in east Jerusalem and a tour - her first - of Jerusalem's Old City, that her job is to "communicate very clearly what the president stands for and what America stands for." But in this region, at a time when, for many Arabs, "The American" is a khaki-uniformed GI patrolling the streets of Baghdad, or a sadistic prison guard at Abu Gharib, communicating what Bush stands for is a tough sell. (Hughes herself has gotten a taste of just how tough over the past two months, when high-profile town-hall meetings with groups in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia turned into Bush-bashing, anti-America fests.) Powell believes the fact she is an Arab-American may provide her with an edge in communicating the president's message. "It does help because I understand this region," she says, sitting in a lounge in the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. "It is the region of my family, region of a rich and wonderful culture. I am very proud to say I'm from the Middle East, and obviously extremely proud to be an American, and when I talk about that I think it does resonate because I understand the culture and the people: It's my family. "I also understand that it is America that gave this particular Arab-American a home and dreams and opportunities beyond her and her family's wildest imagination. So in a sense I feel the duty to play a bridging role between the heritage and rich culture of the place of my birth, and my country now." Powell emphasizes her trajectory from the frightened little Egyptian schoolgirl who took felafel and humus to lunch period instead of peanut-butter-and jelly sandwiches, to a trusted advisor to the US president. "Once my parents came to the White House for an event," she recalls. "The president was walking by doing a receiving line, and stopped by my father, a tough elderly Egyptian man, and said 'I'm proud your daughter works here.' I turned to my father and expected some excitement - here he had just met the leader of the free world - and he was quite overcome by emotion. I felt a little surprised, and asked, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'To imagine that the young daughter I brought, not speaking word of English so many years ago, would one day serve the president of the United States is an emotional thing for me.' "I tell this not because it is the story of Dina Powell," she says, giving a hint that this is a tale she has recounted many times, "but because it is the American story. This is a country where if you work hard enough then your background, social status or whether you do or don't have money doesn't really matter. It is really about how hard you work. It's really a wonderful story about our country." Powell tells this story because she says it resonates with people who may have a jaundiced view of the US. "Public diplomacy is not an overnight challenge," she says. "If you view it that way, you really have the wrong view. Our predecessors during the Cold War didn't know that for 30 or 40 years they were affecting lives through exchange programs and institutions they created, like the Voice of America. Karen [Hughes] and I view ourselves as laying the foundation for what really is a struggle of ideas." WHILE AN Arab, Powell is not a Muslim, but rather a Coptic Christian. She cuts off any line of questioning as to how this may detract from her ability to resonate in the Arab world by saying politely but firmly, "I hate when people bring religion into it." Powell came to the State Department this year from the White House, where she was head of the presidential personnel office - Bush's headhunter - scouting and screening people for the thousands of jobs the president needs to fill. She was the youngest person ever to hold that office. Before coming to the White House, the University of Texas graduate who has a four-year-old daughter, served as director of congressional affairs at the Republican National Committee and as an aide to another Texan, former Republican US House Majority Leader Dick Armey. She spices her speech with stories - like the time six prominent Egyptians came to the US begrudgingly in the 1960s, only to leave enamored of the country. Before they returned home, she says, they spent an hour with then president Lyndon Johnson, and as they were about to leave, one of the Egyptian guests turned to the organizer of the visit. "I want to be very honest with you," Powell quotes one of the men as saying. "I was not happy coming here, I didn't want to come to your country, and was actually quite scared. But after spending this time here I realize that all the negative things I heard - about discrimination, about the evils of America - were propaganda, and that in fact this is a freedom-loving, welcoming nation. When I return to Cairo that is what I'll talk about." Like a seasoned storyteller, Powell then revs up for the punch line. "The organizer then turned to the man and says, 'Mr. Sadat, I am honored you were able to come." Powell uses this tale to illustrate the curative powers a trip to the US may have for key opinion-makers, and she says these types of visits are a priority of her department. Recently her department brought over 12 "very conservative Saudi clerics" who had never been to the US. They were struck, she says, by the freedom of worship in America. "It is wonderful that those 12 people have a different view of the US [than they had before]," she says. "But what is even more wonderful is that they give Friday sermons and their reach is quite broad." Powell has a cheery optimism that belies the reality she and Hughes are facing: America's image in the Arab world today is more that of villain than hero. But Powell, perhaps due to her age, personal story or position in the administration, seems undeterred. "When you ask me how we communicate with the Arab world, I think we talk about the fact that while we have many policy disagreements - there will be many issues over which people don't agree with American foreign policy - as human beings we have to agree that the indiscriminate killing of women, children, Muslims, Jews and Christians by these perpetrators is absolutely horrific. I do feel a movement these days that people are really coming out against this type of terror." Which is Powell's silver lining. The road is long, the job at persuasion difficult, but she believes that the recent demonstrations in Jordan against the terrorist attacks there, and the condemnation by Muslim clerics after the London bombings earlier this year, are a good sign. Presented with an observation that Israelis will really believe things have changed when these types of demonstrations take place even after Israelis or Jews are killed, Powell - ever the careful diplomat - delicately sidesteps. "One of the things I always say when I talk about terror is that the Israeli people have dealt with terror for a longer period of time [than anyone else] and it is really important to keep that in context," she says. "I certainly have heard President Bush and Secretary Rice talk about that."