First Lady Begins Mideast Trip

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005; 1:09 PM

AMMAN, Jordan, May 20 -- First Lady Laura Bush said America's image abroad has been damaged badly by the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq and the retracted Newsweek report of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay. She made the comments as she flew to the Middle East to tout democracy, human rights and free elections in the region.

"We've had terrible happenings that really, really hurt our image of the United States," Bush told reporters. "People in the United States are sick about it. They're very sorry that that's the image that people in the Arab world got of the United States."

During a five-day diplomatic mission that will take her from the Dead Sea and Israel's Western Wall to the pyramids of Egypt, the first lady said she will emphasize the role of women and education in creating free, functioning democracies around the world. She will also work to mend America's tattered image, Bush said.

The first lady visits the Middle East at a time of uncertain change in the Arab world that is underscoring the promise -- as well as the enormous challenges and unavoidable contradictions -- of trying to spread democracy in a region largely ruled by monarchs and dictators.

At the World Economic Forum Saturday near the Dead Sea in Jordan, she will deliver a speech about democratic progress and expanded rights for women in places such as Kuwait and in Afghanistan, where recent riots and killings have amplified the dangers and instability that persist.

She will make her first trip as first lady to Israel, where peace talks and a fragile truce with the Palestinians are threatened by decades of mistrust. The first lady will have tea with the wife of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, host a roundtable discussion with Palestinian women in Jericho and tour the Church of the Resurrection in Abu Gosh. "I really, truly believe that we are as close as we have ever been to peace," the first lady said.

Bush will conclude her visit with a two-day stop in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak is promising free elections but imposing tight restrictions on who can run for office. Critics charge the White House should do more to defend opposition groups and pressure Mubarak to open the elections and allow international monitors.

The first lady, who plans to spend a lot of time with Susan Mubarak, the wife of the president, said the White House is committed to strong monitors and open elections. "President Mubarak is very popular in Egypt, he's very well liked, and it's very important for him, as well as for the country, as well as an example for the rest of the countries in the broader Middle East, to show that Egypt can have free and fair elections." Egypt is second only to Israel in terms of total U.S. aid.

The Egyptian ruling party's most recent proposal for this year's election would prevent a number of opposition groups, including the largest, the Muslim Brotherhood, from competing. Under the rules, a candidate would need the signature of 250 current government officials, almost all of whom are members of Mubarak's party.

At the same time, there has been a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 400 of the group's 2,500 members have been arrested in recent weeks. "In a democracy, everybody has to participate or it won't work," Laura Bush said.

The White House has used a carrot-and-stick approach this week, with President Bush inviting the Egyptian prime minister to the White House on Thursday and later that night suggesting trade with Egypt might be linked to election reforms. Still, the first lady's visit to Cairo and Alexandria, where the former librarian will visit one of the world's most famous libraries, are sure to be seen as a symbolic blessing of the Mubarak government.

More broadly, Laura Bush's mission is to help repair the U.S. image in Arab nations, which experts say remains damaged not only by the prison scandal and recent flap over a retracted Newsweek article, but also hostilities over the Iraq war and perceptions of an imperialist and religiously motivated United States trying to impose its views on the world.

Laura Bush said Arab people don't understand how tolerant Americans are, in part, because of the retracted Newsweek report that U.S. soldiers flushed copies of the Koran in the toilet at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are detained. "You can't blame it all on Newsweek," she said, "but at the same time it was irresponsible." Newsweek first apologized for the inaccurate report then retracted it under heavy pressure from the Bush administration.

President Bush has promised a more rigorous public relations defense by the U.S. government, but his key appointee in this area -- Karen Hughes, a longtime friend and communications adviser, who will handle Middle East outreach at the State Department -- hasn't started work yet. The Council on Foreign Relations this week said current efforts are floundering.

Laura Bush counseled patience in grading the progress of democratic reforms in the Arab world, echoing the historical reminders President Bush uses to tell people of how long it took for true democracy to take hold in the United States. "We started off with a perfect document. It took us almost 100 years after that to [abolish] slavery."

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