In a stunning move, President Bush’s right-hand woman from his 2000 campaign last month sided with the Democratic members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in shooting down the Republicans’ preferred candidate to head up U.S. radio services across Europe, Central Asia and much of the Middle East.
Karen Hughes’ actions have left some perplexed, and many fear that it is part of a troubling direction she has taken in her role heading up public diplomacy at the State Department.
Since April, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has had two votes on hiring a new president of the broadcasting unit that plays a vital role in the war on terror, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL was a key weapon in bringing down the Evil Empire, and it is supposed to aid burgeoning democracy movements today in places like Iran.
At issue is a fundamental question of how to achieve President Bush’s vision of promoting freedom and democracy, particularly throughout RFE/RL’s broadcasting region that includes a Muslim population of some 300 million. Like the Democratic members of the BBG, some believe that the U.S. should appeal to Muslim youth with popular music, only occasionally slipping in news and information. But others, such as the GOP members of the board, would like to return to the principles that proved so effective during the Cold War, namely targeting key decision-makers with serious programming laced with the values and ideals inherent to free societies.
Following an extensive, nationwide search lead by a high-priced headhunting firm, the BBG this spring was presented with two candidates deemed equally strong by the outside consultants: Enders Wimbush and Fred Kempe.
Having served as the director of Radio Liberty from 1987-1993, Wimbush was an obvious choice for the three Republican members of the BBG. Not only is he seen as a traditional conservative with a vast knowledge of the culture and the spread of radical Islam, he was a leader in successful efforts to foment freedom inside the Soviet Bloc.
While considered by most observers to be smart and talented, Kempe lacked Wimbush’s depth of experience. Though a working (and award-winning) journalist at the Wall Street Journal, he has no background in radio broadcasting. Nonetheless, the three Democratic members of the board selected him this April.
Since the BBG is evenly split by design, tie votes are decided by the secretary of State. In this instance, though, Hughes was appointed to cast the deciding vote — and in two separate cases, she sided with the Democrats.
Shortly after Kempe was offered the position, he decided he would no longer be able to fulfill it. This left Wimbush, who declined comment for this story, as the only candidate for the post who received the strong backing of the headhunting firm.
Meeting in Prague earlier this month, the BBG directors held a straight up-or-down vote on Wimbush. The result was the same. The kicker is that the consultants will now have to go headhunting again — costing taxpayers a mint in the process.
This is not typical Democrat-Republican squabbling. The Democrats on the board sincerely believe in marketing American popular culture to the Muslim world, even though several recent studies suggest that the pervasiveness of American pop culture is the problem. This approach ignores the historical — and successful — mission of RFE/RL: to offer the kind of radio broadcasts on history, culture, politics, religion, and economics that local audiences would get if they lived in free societies. But by definition, disseminating such information is despised by despots. And that is precisely the approach Wimbush has long endorsed.
Hughes’ refusal to support Wimbush appears to confirm fears that she shares the worldview of her new institution, which also happens to be home to President Bush’s most ardent critics within the administration. When he laid out his broad vision for freedom across the Middle East, for example, the diplomatic corps scoffed — and then savaged him in the press, albeit anonymously. And in 2004, many of Sen. John Kerry’s most fervent (secret) campaigners were stationed at Foggy Bottom.
Yet as unpopular as President Bush is with the career Foreign Service, Hughes is becoming something of a rock star to them. Her groupies are giddy that she doesn’t seem to embrace President Bush’s “simplistic” ideas of good and evil. Hughes’ nixing of a staunch advocate of moral clarity will no doubt only boost her already lofty standing at State.
Hughes declined to be interviewed for this column, and State Department spokesman Adam Ereli’s comment on her behalf avoided any discussion of the hiring process. Interestingly, though, Ereli said, “Undersecretary Hughes believes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is an important voice for truth and freedom.”
But does she believe that? If she genuinely does, why did she axe the one candidate who clearly stood for both? Why did she cast her lot with people whose worldview is clouded by moral ambiguity, who would just as soon appease a tyrant as challenge him? Was that for the cause of “truth and freedom?”