By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Karen Hughes, the longtime aide to President Bush, announced her resignation as undersecretary of state yesterday, after two bumpy years in which she overhauled the U.S. approach to public diplomacy but did not make major progress in improving America's image abroad, according to current and former U.S. officials and Middle East experts.
Hughes, 50, one of the last of Bush's Texas inner circle to leave the administration, was a key White House aide early in Bush's presidency. She returned to Washington in mid-2005 with a mission to reach out to a world increasingly suspicious of, or angry with, the United States over its invasion of Iraq.
Public opinion polls show that the image of the United States has declined dramatically in the Muslim world, and elsewhere overseas, during Bush's presidency. The numbers have not improved during Hughes's two-year stint -- and in some cases have gotten worse.
But Hughes used her close connection with Bush and a strong partnership with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push through substantial institutional changes at the State Department, win large increases in the budget for public diplomacy, increase cultural exchanges and expand partnerships with American corporations aimed at bolstering the U.S. image overseas, U.S. officials and outside experts said. Hughes also established regional media hubs to deal with the Arab media, and a 24-hour rapid-reaction team that monitored news accounts overseas and recommended messages to counter damaging stories.
"In the big picture of public diplomacy, our rankings remain very, very low," said Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador who chaired a congressionally mandated panel in 2003 that recommended overhauling public diplomacy programs. "Institutionally, I give her high marks."
Hughes had a rough beginning. The Arab media ridiculed her for statements she made during her maiden voyage to the Middle East in September 2005, which some experts thought indicated a lack of depth in foreign policy.
"I am a mom, and I love kids," Hughes declared in Ankara, Turkey, in September 2005 in an apparent attempt to connect with Muslim audiences. Explaining U.S. goals for Palestinians, she said they were "to have the experience of having children and families."
Reviewing her trip, the Arab News said Hughes was "painfully clueless." Al-Jazeera labeled Hughes "the marquee clown [in] America's circus diplomacy."
But her connection to Bush proved invaluable when it came to fighting bureaucratic wars in Washington. She regularly had lunch or dinner with Bush to update him on her progress -- a level of access highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary, let alone an undersecretary.
For instance, when Hughes met with top aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in October 2005, she shocked them by picking up the phone and calling the White House. She instantly secured a meeting with Bush for the delegation -- a session that normally could take weeks to arrange.
After about a year on the job, Hughes scaled back her travel and speechmaking to spend more time on institutional changes, according to someone who worked closely with Hughes. "I don't remember if it was a deliberate thing, but she realized that the background work was going to be her legacy, along with using her clout to get things done," said the official, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly.
Once Hughes's clout became apparent in the State Department, assistant secretaries began to request that her office pitch their ideas to Rice, because she appeared more likely to approve them if they had Hughes's imprimatur.
In an appearance with Rice at the State Department yesterday, Hughes said she plans to leave office in mid-December and return to "private life" in Austin.