When Karen Hughes met with Egyptians on a boat on the Nile River during the second day of her Middle East tour, she wore a piece of jewelry she had just purchased from the noted Egyptian designer Azza Fahmi: a pearl necklace with a medallion inscribed with the Arabic words for "love, sincerity, friendship."
The inscription echoed the themes that Hughes, the undersecretary of state and confidante of President Bush charged with burnishing the U.S. image in the Muslim world, stressed relentlessly at every public forum during her five-day trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Hughes focused on common love of family, her desire to reach out to bridge gaps in perception, and the long history of friendship and exchanges between peoples.
Indeed, Hughes brought the tactics of American political campaigning to the world of diplomacy, mixing evocative images with simple and sometimes hokey lines -- "I am a mom and I love kids" -- designed to strike an emotional chord with Muslim audiences.
But as Hughes flew back to Washington on Thursday, the immensity of her task loomed larger than it did when she left. Local news media attention, which appeared to grow over the course of the week, mixed pictures of her holding smiling children with skeptical and dismissive reports. Her audiences, especially in Egypt, often consisted of elites with long ties to the United States, but many people she spoke with said the core reason for the poor U.S. image remained U.S. policies, not how those policies were marketed or presented.
Abdel-Rahman Rashid, a prominent writer and head of al-Arabiya satellite television, wrote in the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that, in the Arab world, the United States "resembles a woman of ill repute whom everyone wants to court, but only in secret." He said Hughes "will face an important decision: repair the U.S.'s reputation, which is nearly impossible, or modify the country's policies, also almost unfeasible."
For many in the region, the United States is considered both scary, because of the war in Iraq, and hypocritical, because the administration calls for democracy while funneling $2 billion a year to an autocratic government like Egypt's, with much of that money devoted to the military and infrastructure projects.
Ali Abdel Fatah, an activist in the Muslim Brotherhood -- officially banned from political activity by the Egyptian government -- said in a telephone interview that if Hughes had met with him, he would have asked her to "support real reform in the Middle East, not a cosmetic one but a real one that would allow the people to participate." He added that the United States needed to be an "honest broker" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and let "Iraqis govern themselves."
Hughes, assessing the trip for reporters traveling with her, said she was not taken aback or surprised by some of the tough criticism of U.S. policy. "I heard a lot of heartfelt concerns," she said. "I think it is important to talk about those tough issues."
Hughes said it struck her that in Egypt and especially Saudi Arabia, people were worried that Americans hold a low opinion or distorted perspective of their cultures, which she said was an important issue. Hughes said she was pressing for a significant boost in funds to promote exchange programs between the Muslim world and the United States.
Hughes also said she had not realized how people overseas can get so riled by American television programs or newspaper columns that have nothing to do with the administration. In Turkey, for instance, a number of people told her they were upset about a recent newspaper opinion piece critical of Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.
Hughes met with a variety of preselected audiences -- female Saudi students, working mothers in Istanbul, former exchange students in Egypt -- but generally had few encounters with people on the street, except for the occasional child she would stop and talk to. She said that on future trips -- she expects to go to Indonesia in October -- she wants to reach out to a broader range of people.
Hughes is the fourth person to hold the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, which President Bill Clinton elevated to the upper levels of the State Department in 1999 but which has had an unhappy history in the Bush administration, going largely unfilled for two years. Hughes's close association with Bush has given the job new visibility -- and helped her arrange meetings with officials far above her rank, including the Egyptian prime minister and the Saudi king.
Hughes was instrumental in Bush's 2000 campaign, and she demonstrated during the trip that she was adept at using the tools of an experienced political operative. She even took along what she called two citizen-ambassadors -- a State Department intern who is a Muslim and a Wisconsin Democrat who teaches school -- to demonstrate the diversity of the United States and the bipartisan character of her mission.
In her public statements, she stressed common support for goals, such as a Palestinian state and ending the violence in Iraq, while ignoring or playing down the deep concerns over U.S. tactics to achieve those objectives. And Hughes used the power of repetition, saying almost the same thing, word for word, in almost every interview and public forum.
Sometimes the result was banality: Explaining U.S. goals for Palestinians, Hughes said it was "to have the experience of having children and families." And in Ankara, the Turkish capital, she gushed: "I love all kids. And I understand that is something I have in common with the Turkish people -- that they love children."
Hughes repeatedly said -- three times during a brief interview with al-Jazeera television, for example -- that Bush was the "very first president" to support a Palestinian state. Clinton devoted the last months of his presidency to seeking a peace deal that would have created a Palestinian state, and in a speech before he left office, Clinton said he believed there should be a "sovereign, viable" Palestinian state. But Hughes said her statement was accurate because Bush made it an official statement of U.S. policy to reach that goal.
Hughes told reporters traveling with her that she was surprised Bush didn't get more credit in the region for calling for a Palestinian state. Several people who met with her said that they considered the Bush administration biased in favor of Israel and that it had done little in five years to support the goal.
Hughes, a former television journalist, also kept an eye on the media images. After a tense confrontation with Turkish women over the Iraq war, for instance, she overrode her security detail to stroll through the cobblestone streets of old Ankara. The result was video of her greeting shopkeepers, the perfect antidote to the clash that had just occurred.
In Egypt, when she asked college students for a show of hands indicating who had voted in the recent presidential election, only one shot up. The next day, she worked into her standard speech a heartwarming story about meeting someone who had participated in the first multiparty election in Egypt's history.