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U.S.: Official Vows To Shape Policy With Public Image In Mind

Karen Hughes (file photo) (AFP) The top U.S. official charged with improving the country’s image abroad has said her office is increasingly involved in making foreign policy. Karen Hughes told a congressional panel that public diplomacy and policy making are being integrated at the U.S. State Department to help combat negative perceptions of the United States, especially in Muslim states. But she also defended existing policies in Iraq and regarding detainees in U.S. counterterrorism operations.

Washington, 11 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Three months into her job as the country’s top public diplomacy official, Karen Hughes has said her office is helping to shape policies that could improve the U.S. image abroad.

"From partnering with the Palestinian Authority as they develop institutions to planning for avian flu, from the day of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan and the flooding in Guatemala, America’s response has been formulated with public diplomacy at the planning table," Hughes said.

Hughes, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, said she will travel next week to Pakistan with several heads of major U.S. corporations to lead a private fundraising effort for victims of the country’s earthquake. The aim, she said, is twofold -- helping people in need and demonstrating the compassion of Americans.

Hughes was speaking yesterday before the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to review public-diplomacy efforts. Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest of a country through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign audiences. It differs from traditional diplomacy in that public diplomacy deals not only with governments but primarily with nongovernmental individuals and organizations.

U.S. public diplomacy has received renewed attention in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The ensuing U.S. counterterrorism war has ousted regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq but has also angered large portions of the Arab and Muslim world, according to public opinion surveys.

"We must make a persuasive argument for our policies and not just for us as a people and a country. We can’t hope to win over our audience by trying to persuade them to change, by preaching to them, by outlining our vision for them, however hopeful." -- Representative Henry Hyde

Hughes now presides over a budget of nearly $700 million for programs -- including international broadcasting -- aimed at reaching these publics.

At yesterday’s hearing, Hughes faced charges from Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, that U.S. policies contributed to worldwide anti-American attitudes.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat, said the world is unlikely to embrace the new public-diplomacy effort unless there are certain policy changes. She said the administration must provide an honest explanation for its invasion of Iraq and pointed to the abuses at the Abu Ghurayb Prison in Iraq.

"I believe the Bush administration’s policies [in themselves], these policies have created our image problem with our own foreign policies as it relates to the rest of the world," Lee said.

Hughes defended the administration’s reasons for ousting Saddam Hussein. She added that policy regarding detainees was to treat them humanely in compliance with U.S. laws and consistent with the Geneva Conventions. She acknowledged the difficulties posed by the detainee policy but said it was necessary to keep dangerous people from being released.

Hughes repeated administration comments that the Abu Ghurayb scandal represented the actions of a small minority of U.S. military personnel.

"Those were criminal acts that were committed at Abu Ghurayb. And as often is the case, the crimes got a lot more attention than the punishment. But I think it's important for the American people and the world to know that more than 20 -- I believe 25 people have been reprimanded, sentenced, tried or found -- held responsible in one way or another for what occurred at Abu Ghurayb," Hughes said.

The chairman of the congressional panel, Republican Henry Hyde, urged the administration to avoid trying to charm foreign publics and instead focus on presenting its policies consistently.

"We must make a persuasive argument for our policies and not just for us as a people and a country. We can’t hope to win over our audience by trying to persuade them to change, by preaching to them, by outlining our vision for them, however hopeful. We can only do so by explaining and defending our own position, our own policies, what it is that we are in fact trying to accomplish," Hyde said.

At a separate congressional hearing yesterday, a leading U.S. pollster said high levels of anti-Americanism worldwide continue to be driven by negative perceptions of Washington’s policies. But Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, said there is has been some decline in anger toward the United States recently in the Muslim word, particularly in countries like Morocco and Indonesia and other places that have recently experienced terrorist attacks.