Bush insider Hughes quits administration

Times Staff Writer

Karen Hughes, a presidential confidant entrusted with the arduous job of reversing America’s plummeting image abroad, announced Wednesday that she would resign from the administration and return to Texas.

Hughes, 50, one of the last members of President Bush’s Texas inner circle still in government, said she would leave her post as head of the State Department’s public diplomacy programs at the end of the year.

Her departure closes out a two-year effort that gave a high profile to the administration’s efforts to improve America’s reputation overseas but did not reverse a continuing decline that was caused in large part by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and other Bush foreign policy decisions.

She was the third prominent woman tapped by Bush to arrest the slide of the U.S. image, following failed tries in the years after Sept. 11 by ad executive Charlotte Beers and former ambassador Margaret Tutwiler.


The resignation of Hughes, a former TV reporter whose earliest Mideast mission in 2005 was marred by missteps, leaves the future of the public diplomacy effort in doubt. Once seen by Bush as the way to spread “the universal principle of human liberty,” the outreach campaign quickly began to founder in a rising anti-American tide. A key 2007 survey showed a continued decline in U.S. standing among other countries.

At the same time, the administration’s push for democracy in Arab countries also has flagged. But Hughes cited forward progress of the image effort during a State Department appearance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“I feel that I have done what Secretary Rice and President Bush have asked of me by transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security issue,” she said.

Under her leadership, the U.S. budget for public diplomacy nearly doubled, to $900 million a year. The State Department focused on trying to reverse the hostility toward America in the Muslim world, assigning more Arabic speakers to talk to the Arabic news media and setting up “rapid-response units” to try to counter negative commentary on U.S. foreign policy.

But some experts contend that the approach of Hughes, a political media expert, was too focused on defending the Bush administration’s assertive foreign policy and not enough on selling American values and culture more broadly.

Public diplomacy “can be about selling the policies of the moment, or about selling the American brand abroad,” said Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

“If you think of the United States in the midst of a long contest for the sympathy and understanding of the world in the struggle against extremism, the latter is more important,” Wittes said.

In some ways, Wittes said, the Hughes approach, with its rapid-response units, has resembled the “war room” of a political campaign.


As undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, Hughes succeeded Tutwiler and Beers. Beers was tapped amid fanfare as part of a post-Sept. 11 effort to rejuvenate government outreach programs that had been neglected for years. She pledged to bring the energy of ad campaigns to the promotion of U.S. goals, but left less than two years later, citing health reasons.

The difficulty of the sales job had become clearer when Tutwiler, a onetime chief State Department spokeswoman, took over the post in 2003. Tutwiler said the job would take “years of hard, focused work,” but she left six months later to accept a position at the New York Stock Exchange.

When Bush named Hughes to the post in 2005, it was seen as a sign that the administration remained serious about salvaging America’s reputation, even though the challenge was considered greater than ever.

Hughes, who had never been to the Middle East before taking the job, drew criticism for some of her higher-profile initiatives. Her highly publicized “listening tour” of three Middle East countries in 2005 was widely condemned in the region as clumsy and patronizing. In one appearance, Saudi women chided Hughes for focusing on their nation’s restrictions against women driving cars.


More recently, Hughes appointed a pair of U.S. sports stars, baseball Hall of Fame member Cal Ripken Jr. and ice-skating champion Michelle Kwan, as “public diplomacy envoys” to travel and make public appearances.

But Wittes said that some of Hughes’ less visible efforts, such as her moves to make Arabic-speaking diplomats available to the Arabic media, were more productive.

Nonetheless, the image of the United States has continued to dive in many countries throughout the period, not only in the Middle East but in Europe and East Asia. In the last two years it has continued to fall in Britain, France and Germany, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, according to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

In a report issued last spring, the survey said that more than 75% of Palestinians, Turks, Egyptians and Jordanians express unfavorable opinions of the United States.