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Hughes Leaving State Department Public Diplomacy Post

The State Department announced Wednesday that Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes is leaving the international image-building post at the end of the year. Hughes, a longtime political confidante of President Bush, made key changes in the way U.S. foreign policy is communicated to audiences in the Muslim world and elsewhere. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Hughes' more-than-two-year tenure in the public diplomacy job saw no significant change in the low standing of the United States in global opinion polls.

But it did produce major changes in U.S. public relations methods, including making senior State Department officials more accessible to journalists and providing for a more speedy response to potentially-damaging developments in the Middle East with spokespeople fluent in Arabic.

Appearing with Hughes to announce her departure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the undersecretary transformed the long-troubled public relations arm of the State Department in a "spectacular" fashion, making it a place where many of the best foreign service officers want to serve.

"She's made it possible for every ambassador around the world to feel comfortable going out and talking about America's message, pressing the public diplomacy case," said Rice.

"And she's done so by institutionalizing, for instance, a rapid response unit that every day lets people know what Washington is thinking, and can help them so they can be confident in speaking for the United States," she added.

Under Hughes, the State Department began monitoring Arabic and other international television news networks on a 24-hour basis to identify and counter negative stories, while freeing U.S. ambassadors and other top officials from cumbersome policy-clearance rules that limited their access to foreign media.

The politically influential official also oversaw a near-doubling of the U.S. public diplomacy budget to almost $900 million annually, and sent American sports stars Michelle Kwan, an Olympic figure-skating medalist, and Hall of Fame baseball star Cal Ripken abroad as unofficial diplomats.

At the press event with the secretary of state, Hughes said programs undertaken during her tenure reversed a decline in international students enrolled in American universities, and she stressed people-to-people diplomacy as key to building the U.S. image abroad.

"I want to encourage my fellow Americans to study abroad, to engage with the world. One of my plans is to do some study myself and improve my Spanish," said Rice. "And so I think one of my messages has been that, as Americans, we need to engage more and listen and reach out to the people of the world, and I'll continue to be an advocate for that."

Hughes has been one of President Bush's closest advisers since he was governor of Texas in the 1990's.

She left the White House for family reasons in 2002 but returned to Washington to assume the State Department post in 2005.

One of the last remaining members of the President's Texas inner circle still in Washington, Hughes is the latest of several top aides to step down as the Bush administration moves into its final year.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says a search for a successor to Hughes is underway.