- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

ISTANBUL — Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s top public diplomacy official, traveled to the Middle East last week to begin repairing the U.S. image, but she encountered high-running emotions rooted in deep mistrust and suspicion about most things American.

As she flew from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Turkey, Mrs. Hughes heard a similar refrain. Publicly stated U.S. policies are just camouflage for a hidden agenda, her hosts said, and negative perceptions about the United States will not change until Washington comes clean about its real intentions.

“You have a hidden motive,” Mrs. Hughes said, paraphrasing responses when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war or even her trip.

“You cringe a little,” she said as she described “angry” and “passionate” audiences with “a very antagonistic attitude,” Mrs. Hughes told reporters on her plane.

“It underscores the depth of the problem.”

Mrs. Hughes, who is the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said in almost every meeting during her trip that the goal of U.S. policy “in Palestine is that the Palestinian people might have the opportunity for a better life.”

“I think when you hear sometimes the discussion of our policy here in the Middle East, that’s not the version that you hear,” she said.

Conspiracy theories about grand U.S. designs on the Middle East are abundant, but even senior government officials and Western diplomats in the region said that Washington could be more open about its policy goals with foreign countries.

“All they want is for us to trust them enough to be honest with them,” said a senior Western diplomat in Cairo.

The Arab press was much more blunt and hostile.

The London-based Al Hayat newspaper wrote that Mrs. Hughes “simply is carrying a fake message and mission.”

“We in Egypt, and everywhere else, don’t need America’s public relations campaign,” said the Egyptian daily Al Jumhuriya.

Officials in Turkey were more diplomatic, but still made it clear they want Washington to be more straightforward.

“I think we need a deeper dialogue, a more structured dialogue,” Ali Tuygan, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry in Ankara told reporters after a meeting with Mrs. Hughes on Wednesday.

Mrs. Hughes said Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul pointed out that Iraq, Iran and Syria are Turkey’s neighbors and the administration should consult with Ankara during the policy-making process.

“I hadn’t thought much about that,” she said.

Despite heated exchanges with women in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as with Egyptian journalists, President Bush’s close friend still managed to charm some of her hosts.

“Your smile gives us a lot of energy,” Istanbul’s chief rabbi, Isak Haleva, told Mrs. Hughes during a meeting with religious leaders from six different faiths.

Mrs. Hughes, a former domestic adviser to Mr. Bush, set out on her first trip to the Middle East eager to learn the diplomatic ropes.

She used “America” when referring to the United States, a terminology that U.S. diplomats avoid in keeping with conventions of diplomatic “etiquette.”

She said she did not expect to “change any minds,” and her ultimate goal is to foster a “better understanding” of the United States and its policies.

“I did the best I could,” Mrs. Hughes said as her trip concluded Thursday. “I view this trip as extending a hand.”

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