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Public diplomacy campaign targets key nations by Sue Pleming

Public diplomacy campaign targets key nations
Wed Jun 28, 2006 9:09pm ET
By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Determined to turn the tide of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, the Bush administration has drawn up a classified list of about a dozen high-priority countries on which to focus public diplomacy.

Karen Hughes, a political confidante of President George W. Bush and now his chief of public diplomacy at the State Department, said strategic plans were being developed for those "pilot" countries over the next three to five years.

"The exact list is a classified matter but it includes the type of countries where we believe it is very important to counter ideological support for extremism," Hughes said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.

She declined to list the nations but officials said they included Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries that were chosen based on classified information in meetings among the Pentagon, State Department, the CIA and others. Hughes also hoped the approach would improve coordination among government agencies.

One goal was to identify what Hughes called "strategic influencers" -- local people such as sports stars, clerics and others who could explain America's values and confront "ideologies of hate."

Hughes cited a recent dinner at the U.S. ambassador's home in Morocco where the person on her right was a famous cooking show host, while on her left was a track star.

"I came back and shared with others what an interesting dinner this was and how every country should look at identifying who the most influential people are," said Hughes.

She said her department would seek out clerics from Muslim nations where some Friday prayers encouraged hatred and bring those clerics to America on exchange programs.

"All the research shows that people who have been to America or know someone who has been to America are far more likely to have a positive view of our country."


Hughes has been in her job as Bush's public diplomacy guru for nearly a year and has traveled to dozens of countries trying to improve America's image, particularly in the Arab world where opinion polls show deep suspicion of U.S. motives abroad.

She has Bush's ear and usually meets him for a meal after each major trip, reporting where there needs to be improvement and how America can better sell itself.

Some critics of Hughes say her job amounts to nothing more than a crude propaganda machine and even Hughes is sanguine about her impact on the Arab world.

"There is no easy, snap your fingers and the problem will go away," she said. "Opinions aren't going to change overnight, particularly in a time of war."

Hughes said her efforts were not focused solely on the pilot countries and her goals included showing people that America and its values represented "hope for a better life" and to foster a sense of common values with other nations.

She has expanded English-language training and increased student exchange programs, recently bringing over young soccer players from abroad whom she hosted for pizza and ice cream.

"Those are the things people remember, having them over to your house," said Hughes.

Fighting the negative fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq and the U.S. prison for foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has made her job tough.

Comments from one of her staff members that the suicides earlier this month of three Guantanamo detainees were a "great PR move" did not help, but the senior staffer, Colleen Graffy, kept her job.

Hughes said she understood that all those who dealt with the media said something they regretted later.

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