Can Karen Hughes help US image abroad?

Bush has nominated a trusted message maven as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy.

Karen Hughes's new Washington assignment - to improve America's image abroad - may be the ultimate test of loyalty to a president who seems to value that trait almost above all else.

Reaction around town to Ms. Hughes's nomination as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy centered on one theme: its improbability. Hughes, after all, has been President Bush's closest confidante and communications guru since his days as Texas governor - but focused largely on domestic issues. If Karl Rove, the other pillar of Bush's political brain trust, aims more at promoting a conservative agenda, Hughes is the one known for nudging the president back toward the center, by promoting such themes as "compassionate conservatism."

The White House sought in its Monday announcement to highlight Hughes's foreign experience, such as accompanying Bush on foreign trips and working to promote women's rights in Afghanistan, but no one is pretending that foreign affairs is her forte. And two years after a US- dominated coalition invaded Iraq, hurting America's image throughout much of the world, Hughes will face a tougher audience than any in Texas or the bluest of blue Democratic states.

Her two predecessors in the post - advertising executive Charlotte Beers and Margaret Tutwiler, a onetime aide to former Secretary of State James Baker - both left with limited records of accomplishment.

But, analysts say, don't count out Hughes before she begins, particularly as recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories have given Bush's vision for Middle Eastern democracy a boost.

"It's possible that Karen Hughes can succeed where the others failed," says David Rothkopf, a veteran of Clinton administration foreign policy.

In his view, neither Ms. Beers nor Ms. Tutwiler, though talented, was in the job when public diplomacy was a top administration priority - and, in fact, at a time when the administration was willing to ruffle feathers around the world by acting largely alone, if necessary. When Colin Powell was secretary of State, the power of that department was also compromised by his souring relationship with the president and vice president and by the ascendancy of the Pentagon, Mr. Rothkopf says.

Now, Bush is sending some of his closest advisers to State: Condoleezza Rice is secretary of state and, in addition to the Hughes nomination, Bush has also chosen Dina Powell, the Egyptian-born former White House personnel director, to be Hughes's deputy.

Thus, Karen Hughes would have some advantages her predecessors lacked. As one of Bush's closest advisers, even after returning to Texas in 2002, she can pick up the phone and get him engaged. In addition, public diplomacy - communicating what the administration calls "American policies and values" - is a top concern.

"Winning the peace in the Middle East and establishing a legacy of accomplishment there now turns to civil discourse as opposed to military interaction," says Rothkopf. "In that regard, our greatest tools are those associated with our being an information superpower, rather than a military superpower. Karen Hughes is now the commanding general of our information forces."

Still, political analysts say, one can't overestimate the steep learning curve Hughes will face.

"This is a vastly different deal for a person who left her job as a reporter in Fort Worth to go into working with George W. Bush and crafting his message," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"Here, you're asking for Karen Hughes's ear to be tuned to the European, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian publics. Nothing suggests to me that she has the background to know how to shape the message with nearly the facility she had in tuning [Bush's] message for the American ear."

At her State Department introduction Monday by Secretary of State Rice, Hughes said, "I'm eager to listen and learn."

The nomination marks a new phase in Hughes's personal life, as well. After a year and a half in Washington as counselor to the president in his first term, she elected to move back to Texas with her husband and son, citing their unhappiness here. (Even the family dog, it is said, hated it here.) Now, her son is preparing to go to Stanford University in the fall, and she is willing to spend more time away from home. In her post at State, she would be in Washington several days a week.

Though the impact of Hughes's reemergence in Washington would be largely lost on her new foreign audience, here in the capital it has set tongues buzzing. Among journalists, who know Hughes most for her relentless ability to stay on message and for her imposing physical stature, her return brings a little more star power to the capital. It also provides a reminder of the president's second-term proclivity for spreading loyal Texans and veterans of Bush's statehouse days throughout top posts here - from Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department to Margaret Spellings at the Department of Education.

Hughes's return also highlights Bush's apparent comfort with and appreciation for strong women, no doubt a result of having been raised by the formidable Barbara Bush and then married to Laura Bush, whom he credits with getting him to stop drinking.

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