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US Public Diplomacy Chief Departs Amid Praise, Criticism


By the end of December 14, Karen Hughes will leave her State Department post as the chief of the U.S. public diplomacy effort. The Texan, a Bush loyalist and former senior White House aide, became undersecretary for public diplomacy two years ago. Her job was to improve America's standing in the eyes of the world, particularly among Muslims at a time of war in the Middle East. VOA's Jim Fry reports from Washington.

Karen Hughes came to Washington from Texas, a close confidant of President Bush and one of his inner circle. She worked for Mr. Bush when he was Texas governor and received much of the credit for the campaign communications strategy that helped place Mr. Bush in the White House in January 2001. She served as counselor to the president, managing the White House communications offices, including media affairs, speech writing and the press secretary.

By the middle of 2002, Hughes left the White House and departed for Texas, citing the need to spend more time with her son during his crucial high school years.

She served Mr. Bush as a consultant in his 2004 reelection campaign, but by the next year, she was appointed Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. At the time, public-opinion polls showed the U.S. image plummeting in Muslim nations.

Hughes quickly embarked on a tour of the Middle East.

"I came home from my very first trip and asked to see the president," she said.

She says she told Mr. Bush that making progress on the creation of a Palestinian state would be the single most important thing he could do for public diplomacy among Muslims worldwide.

Arab American Institute Chairman George Salem says Hughes had the ear of the president.

"She has better access than any member of the cabinet," said Salem.

By 2007, Mr. Bush had convened the Annapolis Peace Conference, restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Although critics in the Middle East and at home sometimes skewered Hughes and her efforts to reshape opinions about U.S. policy, she tells VOA it is important for American officials to reach out.

Hughes called that first trip overseas as the head of the U.S. public diplomacy effort a "listening tour." Hughes was repeatedly confronted over the war in Iraq.

During a women's roundtable in Turkey, one participant directly challenged the under secretary.

"In every photograph that comes from Iraq there is that view of fear in the eyes of women and children," said the participant.

"As a mother, I do not like war," said Hughes.

Salem says it is in the U.S. interest for senior government officials to understand the region's anger.

"I think it was an important moment for people in the region to be able to confront a senior American official about issues of concern for them," said Salem.

Visits such as this were part of what Hughes calls "people-to-people diplomacy." She says she increased U.S. outreach to domestic and overseas Muslim audiences and she says participation in exchange programs grew from 27,000 people per year in 2004 to nearly 40,000.

"Public diplomacy is about things that unite people as human beings," said Hughes.

Hughes says she has helped make public diplomacy a national priority. Analysts say she took some of the steps recommended in 2003 by a congressionally mandated Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy.

One of Hughes innovations was a rapid response team of Arabic-speaking analysts that watches Middle Eastern media in Washington and overseas. The new office sends talking points to diplomats worldwide, many of whom Hughes says were once reluctant to risk their jobs speaking publicly.

"We now say: 'No. Go out. We want you to do media interviews.' And, by the way, we also rate now every foreign service officer on public diplomacy," she said.

As she departs her job, Hughes still has her critics. Columnist Rhami Khouri of the Lebanon Daily Star called Hughes's tenure, "a political catastrophe, ineffective and probably counterproductive."

"Ouch! And then he blamed that on 60 years of American foreign policy as if I could snap my fingers and change that overnight," said Hughes.

But opinions of Hughes are not all negative. Thomas Carothers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Hughes did good work projecting a positive image.

"It is not enough to say, 'We care, we listen,' when people point to specific things and say, 'Okay, let me tell you what my concerns are,'" said Carothers.

Hughes replacement will be James Glassman, a conservative commentator and journalist who is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA.

Hughes says her efforts will not be measured in Tuesday's polls, but instead judged over decades by the long-term relationships she began building in her two years as the U.S. chief of public diplomacy.