- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

CAIRO — Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s top public-diplomacy official, ventured out to the front line of the “war of ideas” in the Middle East yesterday and tried to win her first audiences over with arguments well-known to the American public.

Although Mrs. Hughes did not break new ground in defending U.S. policies, whether it was the war in Iraq or the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she came with an acknowledgment many had been seeking for years.

“Our policies affect people’s lives” around the world, she told a group of 30 students at the American University in Cairo. That is why, she said, she had embarked on a “listening tour” to find out how well those policies are understood and what their effects are.

Mrs. Hughes, who is in charge of improving the U.S. image abroad as the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, noted that she had chosen Egypt as her first stop because it is “the most populous Arab country.”

“I view this trip as the beginning of a new dialogue that is very much people-driven and policy-driven,” Mrs. Hughes told reporters on the plane as she flew to Cairo.

“I don’t see this as a matter of opinion polls or public relations,” she said.

Even though she invited the students, who came from across Egypt, to share anything they had on their mind, she was the one who spoke the most, though not by her choice.

They used the chance to ask their guest questions instead of expressing opinions.

Their queries about Iraq’s future, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the images of Katrina’s victims that were broadcast around the world yielded responses familiar to Americans.

“I want to assure you that our hearts ached for those people,” Mrs. Hughes said of the mostly poor, black residents of the Gulf Coast states that were most affected by the hurricane.

But she went on to say that, because the United States is a democracy, the press was free to show embarrassing pictures from New Orleans and other places, and to hold the government accountable for acting too slowly.

“We may be a democracy, but we are not perfect,” said Dina Powell, Mrs. Hughes’ deputy and a native of Egypt who earlier told the students her life story in Arabic, from growing up as an immigrant in Dallas to working as the White House personnel director before taking up her job at the State Department this summer.

There were also the inevitable questions about changing U.S. policies that many in the Middle East and around the world blame for America’s tarnished image, such as Washington’s support for Israel.

“We’ve already changed our policy,” Mrs. Hughes said, citing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s June 20 speech at the same university.

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” Miss Rice said. “Now, we are taking a different course: We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Amani Fikri, foreign editor of the Egyptian opposition newspaper Wafd, said Washington should back its words with actions and withdraw its support for regimes that have been its allies for decades, such as President Hosni Mubarak’s government and the Saudi royal family.

Miss Fikri spoke with a group of American reporters while Mrs. Hughes was talking to local students who had spent a year in the United States.

Mrs. Hughes, who flies to Saudi Arabia today and then travels to Turkey tomorrow, repeatedly emphasized the importance of personal contacts between Americans and their peers from other countries for the success of public diplomacy.

“The war of ideas is a long-term struggle,” she said. “I’m trying to put in place institutions and approaches that will help America in the long term. Some of those things are making public diplomacy an important part of our national-security strategy.”

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