WASHINGTON - Karen Hughes, the longtime aide to President Bush appointed to improve the U.S. image abroad, denied yesterday that she was "taken aback" by the venom of anti-American sentiment she ran into during her recent trip to the Middle East.
Ms. Hughes gave her first public evaluation of her trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey to former ambassadors, scholars, and diplomats at a forum in Washington.
Ms. Hughes said that after meeting with a number of "very activist, opinionated, strong-willed, forceful women" in Turkey, she was not surprised that "many of them disagreed with our position to go into Iraq."
"I found that Arab women were very articulate and very passionate and very eager to express their opinions," Ms. Hughes said. "I suspect that, if I met with a similar group in the United States, I would probably hear the same thing."
Heavy media coverage of her trip to the three countries closely allied with the United States focused on the vehemence with which Arab women said they do not like the war, do not like Ms. Hughes telling them how they should live, and do not think the United States can export democracy to other countries.
"This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero," a Turkish activist named Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal was quoted as telling Ms. Hughes in Ankara.
Ms. Hughes, a former TV journalist who worked for Mr. Bush when he was governor of Texas and for two years in the White House as communications adviser, now is paid $149,000 as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
She has been on the job for two months. After she left the White House to care for her teenage son, now in college, she made $1.8 million in speaking fees and from writing a book, Ten Minutes From Normal. She referred to herself on her Mideast trip as a "working mom."
When she returned from her trip, which she called "fascinating" and enjoyable, she personally briefed the President and persuaded him to meet for 30 minutes with a somewhat stunned Palestinian delegation in Washington who had been expecting a meeting with lower-level officials.
Repeatedly, she tried to tell Arab audiences that the President's Middle East policy is working and is unique.
"President George W. Bush is the first President to make it a matter of United States policy that we support two states [Palestinian and Israeli] living side by side in peace and freedom," she said.
She said some of those she met in the Middle East believe after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States no longer welcomes foreigners. One man, she said, asked her if the Statue of Liberty still faces out toward the ocean.
"And I said, 'Yes, she does.' America is a welcoming country, and we want young people to visit America, and we want American young people to go and visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Turkey and to study abroad."
Next week Ms. Hughes leaves for a tour of Indonesia and Malaysia. Then she will attend a meeting of chiefs of U.S. missions abroad in Hawaii.
She said her new job "is interesting; it's demanding. It's very busy, and I've been reminded every day and sometimes many times each day how very challenging it is. Fortunately, I like challenges."
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