US begins new pitch to Muslim world
Close Bush adviser Karen Hughes is touring Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
CAIRO — Karen Hughes, a folksy Texan and longtime confidante of President Bush, has one of the toughest jobs in the US government: convincing the rest of the world, particularly the Arab world, that US policies are in their best interests.
She started her first week as the State Department's top public relations officer with a "listening tour" of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. But she won't have to listen too closely to hear the widespread anger over perceived US arrogance and heavyhandedness - perceptions difficult to undo as she engages with the Middle East for the first time in her career.
While her friendliness was welcomed by Egyptian students, all on US government scholarships, at her only appearance open to the public here, Ms. Hughes signaled the US wouldn't back down from its post-9/11 goals: focus on the war on terror as a global struggle, and emphasis on a lack of understanding of US policy as the reason people are so angry at America.
It's an approach that failed her two predecessors in the job, Charlotte Beers and Margaret Tutwiler, who presided over a huge slide in America's global image, largely due to the war in Iraq.
In 10 countries surveyed in 2000 by Pew, an average of 60 percent of the people had favorable images of the US. By the middle of this year, that average dropped to 40 percent. A Zogby International poll found that 22 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the US in 2002. By the end of last year, that number had slipped to 2 percent.
"I'm glad she spoke to us, but I didn't find her answers very convincing,'' says Mary Essam Wases, a business major at American University in Cairo who met with Hughes. "They said they were looking for weapons of mass destruction - well, that was a fake goal. There weren't any. It doesn't mean I agree with Saddam's reign, but I see that the country is worse off than before."
Ms. Wases also shares the common Arab view, confirmed by polling, that America has made the world a more dangerous place. "They want to stop terrorism but they're helping it to spread," she says. Egypt, a close American ally, has experienced three major terrorist attacks in the past year, following a six-year lull.
Though Hughes has acknowledged on her trip that many are frustrated with America's policies, changing tack in that arena is outside of her formal job description. She does, however, have the ear of President Bush, which distinguishes her from her predecessors.
Hughes is a former executive director of the Republican Party in Texas and served as the director of Bush's communications office during his six years as governor and during his 2000 presidential election campaign and also helped write President Bush's autobiography.
Yasser Fahmy, an engineer in Cairo, says if he could sit down with Hughes he'd emphasize four things: America should admit invading Iraq was a mistake, set a timetable for withdrawal, reduce support for Israel, and end what he called the "hypocrisy" of calling for democracy while maintaining close ties to dictatorships in the region like Saudi Arabia. "I don't think they really care what we think, but if they do, this is what would improve US standing in the region," he says.
But for now, the Arab world and the US are likely to continue to talk at each other - with Americans most worried about global terrorism, and many Arabs worried that the US is a danger in itself.
Perhaps emblematic of this was the way Hughes returned to terrorism as a threat to Egypt in response to wide-ranging questions from the students who, like most Egyptians, don't share America's level of concern over the issue.
One young man asked what the US expects the students to do when they graduate from the university. Hughes's answer began: "I hope you would speak out against the killing of innocent civilian lives that is so much a part of terrorism today."
When asked what the US could do to help Egypt, she began by talking about President Bush's desire to "spread democracy." She finished her comments by explaining that an absence of freedom in the region, "Led to a malignancy so deep ... that young people would get on an airplane and crash it into innocent people."
When another student asked if she thought the US war in Iraq had ended terrorism, she asked her audience to understand the profound effect 9/11 had on America, finishing up by saying: "The biggest threat to young people here is the prospect that terrorists could get weapons of mass destruction ... so the president made a difficult decision."
Rightly or wrongly, many Arabs see the Iraqi insurgency as a largely nationalist movement, and when Hughes said the insurgency in Iraq "is just killing for killing's sake" during her meeting with the students she struck a wrong chord with many in the audience.
"Wouldn't Americans fight if they were occupied?'' asked another student after the meeting, who asked not to be named.
Nena Rizk, a political science major, says he appreciated Hughes's warmth and "friendliness" but says he worries that America abuses its role as the world's lone superpower.
"America has a very important role in the Middle East, because she's the most powerful country in the world, particularly in the peace process" between Israel and Palestine, he says.
"But she acts in a wrong way - she misuses her position. I think maybe America misunderstands how to use power. She wants to make an example of Iraq and make other countries afraid of her rather than negotiating together."