Well, Dana Milbank's report of Karen Hughes's "town meeting" with State Department officials does not bode well:
The Bush confidante, now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, held a meeting with her staff in Foggy Bottom yesterday and was asked about the international ramifications of the response to the New Orleans flooding. The problem, Hughes replied, was not a failed relief effort but a foreign press that did not appreciate the federal government's good work.
"There are a lot of things being said about us around the world that aren't true," said the woman in charge of polishing the American image abroad. "We've marshaled the resources of our federal government" to help fellow Americans, she said, and if people think otherwise, "we need to aggressively challenge that idea around the world."
Yet the Bush administration, whether discussing Iraq or Katrina, remains unfailingly upbeat. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, introducing Hughes, said nothing of Katrina as she repeated the Bush mantra that "freedom is on the march."
Hughes picked up the theme. "We have to offer a positive vision of hope," she began. As if preparing troops for combat, she described her plans for improving world opinion of the United States: a "rapid-response unit," a plan to "forward-deploy regional SWAT teams" and create "a dual-headed DAS for public diplomacy."
One of her underlings rose to ask how this effort squared with the administration's famously tight control over its message. "Recently, we've had tremendous amount of difficulty in some cases getting clearance for our ambassadors to speak," he said.
Hughes replied that ambassadors are free to talk -- if they use the talking points she sends them. "If they make statements based on something I sent them," she said, "they're not going to be called on the carpet."
I had some encouraging words about Hughes earlier this week. Please don't make me take them all back.... because this is sounding an awful lot like "truth squads + spin", and not any kind of serious rethinking of how to engage with foreign audiences. Maybe I should have asked for that pony after all...