Hughes Is Varnishing the Nation's Tarnish

By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 9, 2005

The image of the United States has taken a beating over the past 10 days, as foreign television and newspapers show images of death, chaos and disease in New Orleans. Even lowly Bangladesh (per capita income: $400 a year) was moved to send $1 million in foreign aid.

But Karen Hughes has another view. The Bush confidante, now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, held a meeting with her staff in Foggy Bottom yesterday and was asked about the international ramifications of the response to the New Orleans flooding. The problem, Hughes replied, was not a failed relief effort but a foreign press that did not appreciate the federal government's good work.

"There are a lot of things being said about us around the world that aren't true," said the woman in charge of polishing the American image abroad. "We've marshaled the resources of our federal government" to help fellow Americans, she said, and if people think otherwise, "we need to aggressively challenge that idea around the world."

An hour after Hughes gave her defense, a group of liberal demonstrators assembled in Lafayette Park for the opposite purpose., which three weeks ago held a rally in the same place to protest the Iraq war, was protesting the hurricane response. This time, instead of demanding a presidential audience for anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, the group was demanding a presidential audience for three New Orleans evacuees.

The demonstrators, carrying messages promoting women's rights, labor unions and "Hillary '08" and condemning Halliburton, Karl Rove, the Iraq war and killings in Sudan, did not deny that the hurricane protest was opportunistic. "It's almost as if people are looking for an excuse to pin something on Bush that will stick," said Jerry Stein, who also marched in the Iraq rally.

Ten days after Katrina struck, the administration and its critics faced credibility challenges. On one side, Bush and his aides continued to admit what even key Republicans in Congress have said: that the response to the hurricane was a debacle. On the other side, liberals ratcheted up their criticism of the administration, giving Bush support for his accusation that they are playing politics.

Remarks by prominent Republicans have left the party on the defensive. The president's mother suggested that life in the Astrodome is "working very well" for impoverished evacuees. Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) suggested fines for people who didn't heed evacuation warnings. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) proposed bulldozing New Orleans.

Two-thirds of Americans say the administration botched the relief effort, a new Pew poll found, and only 40 percent approve of Bush's performance overall. Vice President Cheney was cursed out yesterday in Gulfport, Miss.

Yet the Bush administration, whether discussing Iraq or Katrina, remains unfailingly upbeat. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, introducing Hughes, said nothing of Katrina as she repeated the Bush mantra that "freedom is on the march."

Hughes picked up the theme. "We have to offer a positive vision of hope," she began. As if preparing troops for combat, she described her plans for improving world opinion of the United States: a "rapid-response unit," a plan to "forward-deploy regional SWAT teams" and create "a dual-headed DAS for public diplomacy."

One of her underlings rose to ask how this effort squared with the administration's famously tight control over its message. "Recently, we've had tremendous amount of difficulty in some cases getting clearance for our ambassadors to speak," he said.

Hughes replied that ambassadors are free to talk -- if they use the talking points she sends them. "If they make statements based on something I sent them," she said, "they're not going to be called on the carpet."

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