Hughes' learning curve

September 30, 2005

A Saudi woman in her black chador gave Karen P. Hughes a lesson in Mideast diplomacy that the U.S. envoy should have gotten before she visited the kingdom this week: Not everyone wants to live as an American.

As the Bush administration's newest ambassador for public diplomacy, Ms. Hughes is supposed to be improving America's image abroad, especially in the Muslim world. But, in sharing her hope that Saudi women would be able to drive one day, Ms. Hughes assumed that the women in her audience, professionals mostly, wanted that too. Her presumption sounded too much like, "We know best." And it's that attitude that has helped stoke anti-American feeling abroad, especially in the Islamic world.

Ms. Hughes' visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey this week was her first trip abroad in her new role. Listening was to be a priority, she had said. Her instinct was right. But the presidential adviser credited with perfecting her boss' message has got to work on her own. Ms. Hughes has a tough job (she's the third in this post), made more difficult by her lack of expertise in the Middle East. An Arab news editor, who attended a meeting with the undersecretary, took exception to her mention of anti-American literature found in a dozen U.S. mosques because it contributed to negative images of Saudi Muslims.

Ms. Hughes's focus should be explaining America to Muslims and identifying ways U.S. policymakers can help improve their lives. The conversation she had with the Saudi women at a college should have explored issues that matter to them in the way driving matters to a Texas mom like herself. Before Saudi women drive, they should be able to vote. If they vote, they may soon be able to drive - if that's their priority. What did Ms. Hughes learn about Saudi women's concerns?

In Turkey, women activists pressed Ms. Hughes about U.S. policy in Iraq. Reminding them that Iraqi women suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein, as Ms. Hughes did, doesn't address the impact of the U.S.-led war on Iraqi women today. Staying on message may have been Ms. Hughes' mantra in her White House days, but Muslims' negative view of the U.S. is very much tied to the administration's message on the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a democratic Mideast.

While en route to Egypt, Ms. Hughes told reporters that she hoped for open, give-and-take meetings. She got one in Jeddah. And in Ankara, too. The women's candor should be invaluable for a diplomat who may find herself constrained by the polite language of diplomacy. Seeing America as Muslims see the U.S. is the first step toward understanding America's image problem and figuring out how to improve it.

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