Karen Hughes has been unfairly criticized.
Yes, she is the most senior official in the Bush administration responsible for working to improve America's image around the world - and that image is in trouble, as polls abroad show. It is therefore not surprising that many people have blamed Ms. Hughes, the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department since 2005, for failing to correct this problem. But that judgment ignores several important facts.
First, the undersecretary of state does not control the half of the traditional public diplomacy budget that goes for broadcasting (it is under an independent board) or the Pentagon's huge information effort in Iraq and elsewhere.
Second, "public diplomacy" is not a panacea. Misinformation is widespread in this world of 24/7 global chatter, and public diplomacy can help bring facts and reasoning into the ongoing discussion. But it alone cannot remake America's image abroad - an image that is formed primarily by our policies and actions.
Third, public diplomacy has not recovered from a decade of neglect when we won the Cold War and Washington decided it was no longer necessary. Budgets, programs and personnel levels at the U.S. Information Agency declined sharply, as Americans assumed that public diplomacy was no longer needed because we were the sole superpower and could do what we wanted.
This false sense of omnipotence disappeared on 9/11, when Americans realized that our role in the world was not so secure. Suddenly, public diplomacy was rediscovered, and a great deal was expected of it.
While President Bush was using massive military force in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, others were looking for alternative ways to defend American interests and respond to terrorism. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard coined the term "soft power." He argued that besides military and economic superiority, we should pay attention to our behavior in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib that undermine our standing and the willingness of others to support our interests, and that we also need cultural and information programs to explain ourselves.
Karen Hughes gets it. When Al-Jazeera TV criticized our policies, most U.S. officials would respond by condemning the network, but she realized that it would be smarter to participate in its talk shows, and she sent bilingual officers to present our views on it. When one of them was criticized in the United States for a comment, taken out of context, that was critical of the United States, she defended him. We are now much more engaged in a helpful dialogue with our Arab critics that reaches a huge Arab audience.
The fourth reason criticism of Ms. Hughes is unfair is that there are no quick fixes. Public diplomacy includes long-term instruments such as education as well as explanations of policy, and she has taken important steps that will bear fruit in the long run.
Having served as a diplomat abroad, I am convinced that the best way for foreigners to acquire a sophisticated understanding of our society, culture and policies is to come here and see America for themselves. I always found it easier to deal with foreign officials who had been students in the United States. Ordinary Americans are usually very friendly to strangers, and foreigners visiting here are usually impressed by our way of life, our democracy and many other aspects of our country. Polls show that foreigners who visit here have more positive attitudes toward America.
Ms. Hughes knows this, too. She has worked hard, and successfully, to expand the exchanges of students and professionals that the State Department sponsors. In only two years, she increased the number of participants in the department's exchange programs from 27,000 to more than 38,000. She also expanded English teaching programs abroad, a "secret weapon" that carries considerable American cultural content and helps foreigners understand us better.
Since it is also important for Americans to understand the world, she increased State Department study-abroad scholarships for American students to triple the number of a decade ago. Among them are more than 1,300 Americans on Fulbright programs abroad, the most ever. And the Bush administration has vigorously promoted the study of critical foreign languages such as Arabic, Persian and Chinese.
Finally, when post-9/11 visa security measures caused a sharp decline in visas for foreign students, threatening our exchange programs, State Department officials worked to reverse the decline. Last year, more students came here - fully screened and investigated - than before 9/11.
These efforts that further our interests abroad have gone largely unnoticed, but they will pay off in the long run.
William A. Rugh was ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995. His e-mail is email@example.com.