The former television reporter, known around the White House as the only person besides Laura Bush who can tell the President he's wrong, now has the job of bridging the chasm between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Hughes, 49, spoke with TIME's Elaine Shannon and Jay Carney about how soccer and Oprah figure into her role as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.
THERE'S A FAMOUS PICTURE IN OUR OFFICE OF A COWBOY SAYING "THERE WERE A HELLUVA LOT OF THINGS THEY DIDN'T TELL ME WHEN I HIRED ON WITH THIS OUTFIT." WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND OUT ABOUT THE STATE DEPARTMENT'S PUBLIC-DIPLOMACY OUTFIT? I really didn't know what to expect. The morning after the President announced my appointment, the Vice President saw me and said, "Karen, my condolences. You just took the hardest job in government."
DO YOU SEE THE FURY OVER THE MUHAMMAD CARTOONS AS A SETBACK OR AN OPPORTUNITY? Well, I think this highlights the need for dialogue. The violence is wrong and counterproductive. I can understand why people are offended. That said, in a free society, people have the right to speak out even if others are offended. With freedom of the press also comes responsibility. We need to do a better job of talking through these difficult issues in a peaceful way.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE PEOPLE AREN'T JUST TELLING YOU WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR? Right now, if we walked down [to the State Department's new media-monitoring unit], you'd see live what's happening on Arab TV. We have a young man who's watching the blogs, the Web chats. So when I walk in, I instantly can know what's being said. That unit publishes a daily rapid-response report. It goes to all the Cabinet Secretaries and all our ambassadors.
WE HEAR THAT AMBASSADORS AND EMBASSY PUBLIC-AFFAIRS PEOPLE ARE BEING TOLD TO GET OUT AND TALK MORE. There used to be a rule that you had to get clearance from public affairs before you did an interview. We've eliminated that because we want people to speak out. It's like what Ed Murrow used to say: "Public diplomacy needs to be in at the takeoff, not just the crash landing." ANY SURPRISES DURING YOUR MIDDLE EASTERN LISTENING TOUR LAST YEAR? When I was in Saudi Arabia, women there kept saying, "Your media said this, your media said that," and I finally realized they were talking about an Oprah Winfrey show about domestic violence in Saudi Arabia. Because they don't understand the independence of our media, they thought I put Oprah Winfrey up to that.
ARE THERE BOOKS BY SCHOLARS OF ISLAM THAT YOU FIND PARTICULARLY INSIGHTFUL? John Esposito at Georgetown has done a number of books. I've read excerpts of a lot of them. [Reza Aslan's] No God but God, I've read it. Here at the State Department, we've hosted several events, trying to educate our own employees. We've had three scholars and one cleric come and speak about Islamic culture and traditions, and we had a huge turnout.
A SKEPTIC MIGHT SAY THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN GREAT TO DO FIVE OR 10 YEARS AGO, BUT NOW YOU'VE GOT IRAQ AND A GENERAL PERCEPTION THAT AMERICA IS NOT A FRIEND TO MUSLIMS AROUND THE WORLD. I recognized going in that this is the work of decades, not of months or weeks. Bringing a cleric or a coach who perhaps was very anti-American to America, having them go home with perhaps a different view--that's not going to show up in a public-opinion poll in the next year. I told my staff this morning, "Sometimes I feel like I'm nibbling around the edges, but you just have to keep nibbling."
HOW DO YOU REACH BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL ELITES AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS? In our exchange programs, we're making a real effort to reach out to young people in different populations, not just élites. We've got a World Cup program--soccer is a world sport, something America took up after the rest of the world--and so we're going to have our embassies very involved in inviting kids to come watch the games this summer.
YOUR SON IS A FRESHMAN AT STANFORD. DOES HE WANT TO STUDY ABROAD? I strongly urged him to consider studying overseas for at least a semester, preferably a year. But you never know. Sometimes when their moms suggest things, [kids] tend not to do them.
IS HE ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WILL TELL YOU YOU'RE FULL OF IT IF YOU ARE? [Laughs] Frequently!