- 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.”

Mr. Kohut said he could not connect the survey results with anything coming from Mrs. Hughes office.

It’s hard to know, he said, “how much preventive work she’s done.”

The plan

Last month, Mrs. Hughes released a National Strategic Communications Plan, which was distributed throughout the federal government.

It speaks of lofty goals, such as “offering a vision of hope and opportunity, marginalizing extremists and nurturing common interests and values.”

Mrs. Hughes also created a rapid-response unit to monitor the international press, television and Internet postings around the clock.

The unit produces a daily bulletin, with talking points that policy-makers and diplomats can use when speaking publicly.

“Many Cabinet secretaries have told me it’s the first thing they read every morning,” she said. “It gives our policy-makers a larger view of the way U.S. news is perceived around the world, as well as providing our ambassadors and military commanders with policy points on major news around the world.”

The effort reflects an attempt to adapt to a battleground that continues to evolve with breathtaking speed.

Al Qaeda, whose own multimedia branch, As-Sahab, crossed a threshold last week by releasing a video of its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, reacting to breaking news almost as quickly as a pundit on an American cable-news channel.

On Wednesday, even before a bloody battle over a militant mosque in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, ended, Zawahri appeared on video condemning the siege and urging Pakistanis to wage “holy war” against their government.

Shifting priorities

Mrs. Hughes‘ 2005 appointment was widely welcomed in Washington as an indication that the Bush administration was taking seriously the damage the U.S. image had suffered abroad.

A trusted adviser to Mr. Bush taking charge of public diplomacy — which had been neglected since the end of the Cold War — won bipartisan praise.

Then, Mrs. Hughes got off to a rocky start.

Her first trip as undersecretary was marred by a string of critical articles in the U.S. and Arab press.

Some reporters ridiculed her then-limited knowledge of foreign affairs. Others mocked references in her public remarks to her religious faith and personal experiences as a mother.

As she traveled from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Turkey during what she called a “listening tour,” she sought to connect to her mostly female audiences on a personal level.

But her hosts would have none of it. They wanted to talk about Iraq and the Palestinians.

“Some of the meetings turned into U.S.-bashing sessions as audience members, including women whom Hughes was making a special effort to woo, said they did not accept the Bush administration’s values,” wrote the Turkish Daily News.

The Indian Express suggested that Mrs. Hughes “should be careful not to let the ruling elites of the Muslim world control her understanding of their people and their views of the United States.”

Since then, Mrs. Hughes has traveled extensively around the world, but on commercial jets and without American reporters in tow. She has since learned the nuances of U.S. foreign policy and can hold her own when temperatures rise, State Department officials say.

Mrs. Hughes also has the ear of Mr. Bush and shares her experiences of traveling abroad. That, in turn, may have influenced the president to lend a more sympathetic ear to other countries’ grievances and viewpoints, officials say.

“Witnessing the intensity of some of the negative views is difficult,” Mrs. Hughes said. “Generally, after a big trip, I go and share with the president my impressions.”

Skeptics at State

Before Mrs. Hughes took office, she went to see former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was skeptical of the effort to remake public diplomacy, sources familiar with the conversation said.

In the four years Mr. Powell served as secretary, three different persons occupied Mrs. Hughes‘ position, separated by periods when the post was vacant.

His former aides say that given the administration’s lack of interest in foreign public opinion during Mr. Bush’s first term, Mr. Powell decided it wasn’t wise to expend too many resources.

Mrs. Hughes took a different approach.

“I agree that there is concern about policy,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t forge common interests and values, or that we shouldn’t invite people to come and see what America is like.”

Mrs. Hughes said she regularly meets with Muslim communities in the United States and uses the opportunity to promote “empowering women around the world.”

She meets leaders from the private sector and in academia in a bid to make public diplomacy more than a government effort.

Mrs. Hughes said public diplomacy is discussed at Miss Rice’s senior staff meeting every morning, and participants often discuss “public diplomacy strategy” as part of policy implementation.

“We incorporated public diplomacy into everyone’s consciousness,” she said.

No one expects the U.S. to change its policies simply to assuage public anger abroad.

But current and former diplomats credit Mrs. Hughes with helping to streamline a bureaucracy to handle public diplomacy issues more efficiently.

Old-timers and retirees from the U.S. Foreign Service say that much of what she has done involves resurrecting programs that existed during the Cold War.

Patricia Kushlis, a retired diplomat who served in public diplomacy positions in Europe and Asia, said the current English-teaching programs are still tiny compared with what existed in the 1980s.

Back then, millions of students learned English in American centers all over the world, many of which were closed in the 1990s, she said.

“They were one of the most cost-effective activities we had,” she said. “In Athens, for instance, in the early 1980s, we had enrollments of 3,000 students every six weeks.”

Mrs. Kushlis agreed that exchange programs are valuable, but she criticized the State Department for viewing them as a “one-way street.”

In addition to bringing foreigners to the United States, the department could also send more Americans abroad, she said.

Mark Helmke, senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Cold War experience does not provide all the necessary answers to current public diplomacy challenges.

“We struggled with the direction and focus throughout the Cold War,” he said. “Americans consider propaganda a dirty word, although every successful politician, president, business and [nongovern-mental organization] engages in it daily.”

American diplomats “have long been trained to talk to other diplomats, not publics,” and that needs to change, said Mr. Helmke, who works for Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Hughes is finally helping State get its act together on public diplomacy, but it will be long road,” Mr. Helmke said.

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