Bush Choice for Public Diplomacy Role Faces Daunting Task



Faced with a declining U.S. image abroad, President Bush is turning to one of his most loyal and trusted advisers to help improve the international view of the United States. Once confirmed by the Senate, former White House political adviser Karen Hughes will assume the post of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Both the administration and Congress acknowledge that she faces a daunting challenge.

Karen Hughes recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she will mobilize the Bush administration to, " do more listening overseas." She also said she plans to travel extensively to reach out to foreign leaders and citizens.

"The mission of public diplomacy is to engage, inform and help others understand our policies and values," she said. "But I am mindful that before we seek to be understood, we must first work to understand. If I had the opportunity to say just one thing to people throughout the world, it would be: I am eager to listen."

At the same time, Ms. Hughes promised to do more, "to confront hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths and get out the truth about U.S. policy and values."

Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress hope her proven expertise as a communicator on behalf of President Bush will revitalize U.S. public diplomacy efforts and spark a more favorable view of the United States internationally.

"In an era when allied cooperation is essential in the war against terrorism, negative public opinion overseas has enormous and unfortunate consequences," said Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "And we have asked how the United States can be, quote, all thumbs [inept], end of quote, at public diplomacy when we are so expert at the strategy and tactics of public relations, marketing and advertising."

Ms. Hughes takes on her task at a time of growing concern about how the world views the United States, especially in the context of the war on terror.

Several public opinion surveys in recent years indicate a steep decline in how the United States is viewed in many countries. A recent Pew Global Attitudes study found that majorities in 10 of the 16 countries surveyed had a negative view of the United States.

There is particular concern about the Middle East where criticism has been focused on U.S. support for Israel and for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq.

Professor Shibley Telhami is an expert on the Middle East at the University of Maryland who served on a White House-appointed advisory group on public diplomacy.

"So I think what happened in terms of losing the support of people and losing the sympathy of people was not the fight against al-Qaida, which people sympathize with," he said. "I think the fact is that most people around the world did not see a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida."

Karen Hughes says she intends to try to counteract negative views of the United States through what she calls the four E's: engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment.

Some critics of U.S. public diplomacy efforts are urging the administration to selectively target their messages.

Mike Hurley is director for counterterrorism and policy review for the independent, bipartisan commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"I think that what we need to do and certainly what the 9/11 commission recommended was to reach out to the vast majority of moderate Muslims in the Muslim world and to engage them in new and constructive ways on a daily basis," he said.

One recent international poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington found a slight improvement in the U.S. image abroad. Pew Senior Editor Jodie Allen says that came about in part because of appreciation for the U.S. role in tsunami relief.

"We do find in our survey that tsunami aid, for example, produced a positive reaction both in the target country, Indonesia, but also in Europe and in Morocco," she said. "We are not going to be able to talk our way into popularity. But we can behave in ways to show these countries that we understand their concerns and that we are anxious to help."

While specific instances like tsunami aid may help, experts say the United States needs a comprehensive, long-term approach to improving its image in the rest of the world and countering its critics.

"We will not have a quick solution to these problems, but as strategy of long term vision, bold steps, dealing honestly around the world and speaking honestly about shortcomings of other societies and addressing our own problems is perhaps a good formula to move forward," said Mike Hurley.

Karen Hughes says she has no illusions about the challenge she faces. Ms. Hughes says the United States is competing for attention and credibility in the midst of what she calls an international information explosion.

"I recognize that the job ahead will be difficult," she said. "Perceptions do not change quickly or easily. We are involved in a generational and global struggle of ideas, a struggle that pits the power of hate against the power of hope."

As part of the new U.S. effort, Ms. Hughes says she wants to reach out to the private sector, including companies, universities and the entertainment industry to develop a more creative approach to telling America's story.

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