As Karen Hughes, longtime presidential adviser and new public diplomacy guru at the State Department, prepares to leave this weekend on a "listening tour" of the Middle East, a congressionally mandated advisory panel to the department warned that "America's image and reputation abroad could hardly be worse."
The panel's report, which has been seen by senior officials but not yet officially released, said a fact-finding mission to the Middle East last year found that "there is deep and abiding anger toward U.S. policies and actions." The Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy cited polling that found that large majorities in Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia "view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the world order than Osama bin Laden."
The report warned that televised images of U.S. policy choices -- such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the invasion of Iraq -- reverberate across the Arab media and will "long haunt the image of the United States." The committee recommended a series of steps, including increased funding and staffing, to rebuild efforts to promote U.S. culture and ideas -- an essential task that it said has been eroded through bureaucratic shuffling and indifference.
In much of the world, the report said, the United States is viewed as "less a beacon of hope than a dangerous force to be countered."
The advisory committee was created by Congress in 2004 and charged with advising the secretary of state on how to advance the use of cultural diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy. Patricia de Stacy Harrison, at the time an assistant secretary of state, was appointed chairman. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell named F. William Smullen III, his former chief of staff, as a member. Congress selected seven other members for their expertise in cultural, educational and communications issues.
In her maiden overseas trip since being confirmed as undersecretary of state, Hughes is to visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said improving the U.S. image abroad is one of her top priorities; her success in recruiting President Bush's longtime confidante to spearhead the effort is seen by many in Washington as a coup.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that Hughes is "going to be starting a conversation with the rest of the world." He said that she will be "listening" on the trip, "and in listening, she will also be trying to explain our policies and laying the foundation for the coming years, in terms of our public diplomacy efforts."
But analysts said yesterday that Hughes will face real challenges. Not only are U.S. policies in the Arab world scorned, but the administration's promotion of democracy while supporting autocratic governments is seen as hypocritical, and visa restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have caused anger and resentment.
"Straight talking will work, but sweet talking won't," said James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "This is not about feigning sincerity; it's about responding to concerns. We are in a hole too deep."
Radwan A. Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said that, on a recent trip to the region, he found that the level of anti-Americanism is "10 times what it was just a year ago." He attributed the shift to the war in Iraq and the feeling that the United States is not serious about promoting democracy because it does not confront countries such as Egypt over its political prisoners.
Rami G. Khouri of the Daily Star in Beirut wrote in a commentary last week that Hughes's efforts have promise "but I fear if some early distortions, gaps and misguided operating principles are not quickly amended, she and her efforts could turn out to be another howling waste of time and money."
Edward P. Djerejian, who chaired a 2003 panel that recommended changes in public diplomacy efforts, said his committee determined that 80 percent of the perception of the United States overseas was determined by policy choices and feelings about U.S. values. The other 20 percent, he said, could be affected by public diplomacy efforts, a margin that he noted could be a "critical factor for the struggle for ideas."
Djerejian has been assisting Hughes in drafting a strategy for her job. The plan, he said, draws on recommendations in his committee's report, including the creation of rapid-response teams to counter rumors.
"It is clear the American brand has been badly damaged," Smullen said. "I'm not suggesting we have to change our policy, but we do need to take an assessment of the attitudes toward us by people around the world."