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US Public Diplomacy Chief to Visit East Asia

The State Department's new public diplomacy chief, Karen Hughes, will visit Indonesia and Malaysia next week in another of what she terms listening trips to develop a strategy for improving the United States' image abroad. Ms. Hughes visited several Middle East countries on a similar mission two weeks ago.

Indonesia and Malaysia have large Muslim populations and the State Department says Ms. Hughes will, among other things, attend several Ramadan holiday Iftaar dinners to hear the views of government officials, students and members of non-governmental organizations in the two countries.

Ms. Hughes was sworn in as Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs a month ago with the mission of improving the United States' global image, especially in the Muslim world where it has been battered by the war in Iraq and other issues.

The former top adviser to President Bush announced her travel plans at a public diplomacy seminar at George Washington University, a few blocks from the State Department.

She cast her first trip, to several Arab Middle Eastern states and Turkey as a success even though it was marked by sharp criticism by audience members at several events of U.S. policy in Iraq and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ms. Hughes said it was no surprise that the U.S. decision to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein remains controversial in the region and at home, but said there should be a consensus now behind the American-led effort to help build a stable democracy there:

"I think that's what most people in the Middle East want as well. They want a democratic stable Iraq as a neighbor, and so I don't think they want us to abandon that policy before we achieve that result, although they don't, as I said, many looking back, did not agree, and I recognize that, with our decision to go into Iraq in the first place," she said.

On the Palestinian issue, Ms. Hughes said the Bush administration does not see Israel's Gaza disengagement as the end of a process but a step toward a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

She also suggested President Bush is not being given enough credit in the Arab world for becoming the first U.S. President to formally embrace, as a policy goal, the idea of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

"I asked audiences: do you disagree with that policy, do you think we should not support a Palestinian state? Now I understand that people can maybe think that the United States ought to push more or pull more, or try to achieve that result in a different way, but I think the fundamental policy that we support, the creation of a Palestinian state, is something that's widely supported in the region," she said.

In the course of her five-day East Asian mission beginning October 20, Ms. Hughes will go to Jakarta, observe reconstruction efforts in Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh province, and visit the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

She will return to the United States via Hawaii where she is to address a regional conference of U.S. diplomatic mission chiefs. She has said she expects all U.S. ambassadors and other diplomats to make public diplomacy as a key part of their official duties.