Hughes Promotes U.S. Image in Middle East

Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is touring the Middle East and meeting with civic and political leaders. Her mission is an effort to improve the image of the United States in the region.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

On this single in the Middle East, Israel fired missiles into Gaza. The move came after rocket attacks on Israel.

INSKEEP: In Iraq today, the US confirmed the killing of an al-Qaeda leader, and a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of police recruits.

MONTAGNE: A British newspaper reports today that Saudi Arabia is secretly negotiating to buy billions of dollars' worth of British weapons.

INSKEEP: And a key American ally, Hosni Mubarak, took another oath of office today as president of Egypt. In the last election, he allowed opposition for the first time in decades, just not too much of it.

MONTAGNE: This is the environment in which one of President Bush's closest advisers is touring the Middle East. Karen Hughes shaped the messages for the president's first campaign. Now he wants her to improve America's image abroad. As if to emphasize the challenge, an Egyptian paper greeted the visit with a warning that American policies are unpopular and, quote, "makeup won't work." NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Karen Hughes was installed as a new public diplomacy czar with the hope that she would bring a dynamic new approach to help win the collective hearts and minds of people in other countries. Hughes admits she faces a huge challenge. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office says that anti-American sentiment is both spreading and deepening around the world. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, says choosing Hughes to be the face of American public diplomacy is interesting.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): One of the biggest assets for Karen Hughes in this position is that she has a strong relationship with the president and a strong relationship with the secretary of State. Those are two essential relationships. One of the disadvantages that she has is that she is not a foreign policy expert and certainly not a Middle East or Muslim countries expert.

NORTHAM: Shortly after 9/11, President Bush named Charlotte Beers, a New York advertising executive, to help craft a positive view of America to export abroad. Beers launched a public relations campaign called `Shared Values.' It included a slick series of television ads showing American Muslims bestowing all the good things about living in the United States.

(Excerpt from ad)

Unidentified Woman: It's nice to know that Americans are willing to understand more about Islam.

NORTHAM: The video was roundly dismissed. Critics charged that Beers did not understand her target audience, and only a few Arab countries ran any of the ads. Not long after, Beers left her position. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, says Karen Hughes could learn a lot from that experience. Gerges says Hughes needs to do more than just send out the message: If you only knew us, you'd like us.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Sarah Lawrence College): Arabs and Muslims make it very clear, we do understand America. We do understand Americans. We have tremendous respect for your values. Our disagreements are with your foreign policy.

NORTHAM: Gerges says the most contentious policies include the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war in Iraq. Unlike others who preceded her, Hughes does have the potential to affect foreign policies. For the first time, she and other officials in her office will attend policy meetings. Gerges says that's a start, but he doesn't think those in the senior ranks of the administration are ready to make any profound changes.

Prof. GERGES: I don't think they really are interested in basically taking a spot of American foreign policies. This is--requires major, major changes, mind-set, ideological, political investment.

NORTHAM: Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says there's little use trying to convince diehard Jihadists, who will likely hate the United States no matter what. Satloff says it's better to focus on Arabs and Muslims more likely to accept America's policies.

Mr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): The point is whether, in the midst of a battle, we can find allies willing to make common cause with us against our common enemy. This is a time of war. Just as much as it is a war against terror, it is a war against radical ideology, and we should play to win.

NORTHAM: But University of Maryland's Telhami says worrying trends right now have more to do with perception than policy, such as the widespread view in the Middle East that Washington has launched a war against Islam and that the US has lost control of the situation in Iraq.

Prof. TELHAMI: It's not so much that there is resentment of American foreign policy, but there has been a collapse of trust in the US. And that is far more profound than just not liking American foreign policy.

NORTHAM: And Telhami says those perceptions could take a long time to overcome. Hughes travels next to Turkey before heading back to DC. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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