Bush Confidante Begins Task of Repairing America's Image Abroad - New York Times
August 21, 2005
Bush Confidante Begins Task of Repairing America's Image Abroad
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 - For years, President Bush has called on Karen P. Hughes, his confidante from Texas, to help devise replies to attacks from political foes. Now Ms. Hughes, installed at the State Department, plans to set up "rapid response" teams to counter bad news and defend administration policies around the globe.
The teams, to be set up in the Middle East and elsewhere, are one of several initiatives being prepared by Ms. Hughes, who took office this week as under secretary of public diplomacy. The initiatives are part of what Bush administration officials say will be an aggressive drive to repair America's poor image abroad, particularly in Muslim countries.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview this week that the units would "work to deal with misinformation and misinterpretation." During the war in Afghanistan, Ms. Rice said, the administration discovered that it had to rebut "all kinds of lies about what we were doing."
For instance, Ms. Rice said, the administration discovered that allegations of Koran desecration at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, particularly what turned out to be an unfounded report of a Koran being flushed down a toilet, were spread throughout the media in Muslim countries before the United States could respond.
"What we found with rapid response is it does have to be 24-hour and at least a lot of it has to be in the field, not back in Washington, just because of the nature of the time cycle," she said.
In addition, State Department officials say, Ms. Hughes, a former television reporter, plans to lead an interagency "public diplomacy" operating group, including top public affairs officials at the Pentagon, and to change the way Foreign Service officers are evaluated for promotion, placing more emphasis on public relations skills.
Ms. Rice suggested further that the administration would increase funds for educational exchanges and try to make it easier to get visas for such programs. This year, the administration has asked Congress for $430 million to bring students, academics, cultural figures and others to the United States, and to send Americans abroad, a 20 percent increase from last year.
In recent years, State Department officials say, proportionately more of these programs have been focused on the Middle East and South Asia, which now account for about 25 percent of the financing.
Though President Bush and Ms. Rice promised a revamped "public diplomacy" drive in January, it has taken months for Ms. Hughes to begin her job, partly because she has wanted to get her son ready for college. In the summer of 2002, Ms. Hughes resigned from the White House to take her family back to Texas.
Ten days ago, Ms. Hughes laid out her plans for public diplomacy at a meeting with Mr. Bush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Tex. She was joined by Ms. Rice and Ms. Hughes's deputy, Dina Powell, a former White House personnel director. But she has declined interview requests, saying that she needs more time to flesh out her ideas.
Other officials, asking not to be identified because the plans are not final, provided some details, including information about what they said were Ms. Hughes's plans to travel to Europe and the Middle East and to do as much listening as talking on her trips.
She has met with Muslim students, clerics and academics in Washington and with ambassadors of Muslim countries. Early in the week, she directed the State Department to send new summaries of American policies on the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the Iraqi constitution to embassies overseas.
Various independent reports on the problem of public diplomacy have said that most of America's image problems stem from American policies, like the detainees at Guantánamo Bay and support for Israel.
Ms. Rice, in the interview on Wednesday, said that in the future, more weight would be given to public diplomacy in the policy-making process but that this did not mean that the United States would shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
"What I don't want to imply is that we're going to change policy because it's unpopular," Ms. Rice said. "It's a hard problem. Public diplomacy isn't going to help us with the fact that there's still some hard problems that we're going to have to deal with."
Some State Department officials involved in public diplomacy for many years say that Ms. Hughes's arrival will simply reinforce practices already being carried out.
Among the officials consulted by Ms. Hughes is Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador and White House spokesman, who headed a task force that concluded in 2003 that hostility toward the United States had reached "shocking" levels.
Mr. Djerejian said that in talking with Ms. Hughes and Ms. Rice, it was clear that they understood that roughly 80 percent of the explanation for the poor American image stemmed from American policies, but that much could be done to improve the communication of those policies to affect the other 20 percent.
He said he expected that Ms. Hughes would more closely track what was said about the United States on the television networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and in other Arab news media and try to counter bad publicity quickly. The effort to respond to reports on Koran desecration, he said, was "a disaster."
Some State Department officials said part of the problem in that episode was the difficulty of having the State Department defending policies on detaining suspected terrorists when the policies were made by the Pentagon.
Officials at Al Jazeera, for example, said they invited a Pentagon spokesman to discuss the Koran allegations but could not get anyone to go on the air. Pentagon public affairs officials countered that they were unaware of the requests from Al Jazeera.
Mr. Djerejian said his committee had recommended that a high-level official at the White House be in charge of the administration's public diplomacy but dropped that idea when Ms. Hughes was appointed at the State Department because of her closeness to the White House.
"Conceptually and strategically they are seized with the importance of this problem," said Mr. Djerejian, referring to Ms. Hughes and Ms. Rice. "They have the ability to do something about it because they have the ear of the president."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company