- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007

Karen P. Hughes, the U.S. official responsible for improving America’s image abroad, keeps a paper clipping under glass on her desk.

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit,” reads the clipping.

The quotation serves to remind Mrs. Hughes that the mission she accepted from President Bush nearly two years ago will take a lifetime or longer to accomplish.

Especially in the Muslim world, every statement made by Mr. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and American diplomats is greeted with suspicions of ulterior, or even sinister, motives.

Surveys show those suspicions growing at an alarming rate, driven by the headlines from Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and its neighbors — events over which Mrs. Hughes has no control.

“I’m very aware that our words are viewed skeptically,” she said in a recent interview.

“But our deeds, particularly the things we are doing in the area of health, education and economic opportunity to improve people’s lives around the world, resonate,” she said in her State Department office, which is decorated with mementos from more than 12 years as one of Mr. Bush’s closest advisers.

Mrs. Hughes, as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, has largely “dissed” the American marketing savvy of Madison Avenue, instead focusing on the long-term impact of low-key efforts that rarely register in the American press.

U.S.-funded efforts to teach English, for example, will reach foreign audiences, who get most of their information from local sources that are often hostile to the United States, she said.

“Our education and exchange programs, I’m convinced, are the single most valuable public diplomacy tool,” Mrs. Hughes said.

“It’s been the most effective over the last 50 years, because we can prove that they make a lasting difference, not only in people’s lives, but also in their attitudes.”

By any yardstick, Mrs. Hughes faces a daunting, if not impossible, task.

Last month, a Pew foundation report on global attitudes — a survey based on more than 45,000 interviews conducted in 47 countries — concluded: “The U.S. image remains abysmal in most predominantly Muslim countries and has suffered steep declines among the publics of many of America’s oldest allies.”

“The challenge Karen Hughes is facing is substantial, and it would have been extraordinary to me if the numbers had dramatically improved at a time when there is so much discontent about U.S. policies,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

“Public diplomacy in this particular situation can make changes at the margins, but to move the needle you have to have policies or conditions change,” Mr. Kohut said. “Big changes in public opinion are not consequences of misunderstanding, but of big events.”

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