“They probably don’t translate very well into Arabic,” she said with a laugh.
On a five-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, her first as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Hughes learned that a lot more than engage, exchange, educate and empower have been lost in translation between Americans and Muslims abroad.
“I was very cognizant that this was a challenge,” she said of her mission to find out why so many Muslims have such a hostile view of the US and what she can do about it.
Hughes is a close confidante and image-shaper of President George Bush with no previous experience in foreign diplomacy other than accompanying him abroad during trips in the first years of his presidency.
Taken by surprise
“I expected that I would hear from a lot of people who disagree with our policies and we did hear that,” Hughes said on Thursday on her way home to Washington.
But she said she did not expect the degree to which Muslims’ “perceptions of America are related to how Americans are seeing them”.
Saudi women resent being shown
Such perceptions included a group of Saudi women in Jidda who insisted Americans thought they were downtrodden and unhappy, a portrayal they blamed on a programme by television talk show host Oprah Winfrey devoted to spousal abuse in the kingdom.
Even as Hughes held meetings with religious leaders to show Muslims that Americans too were guided by strong convictions, a woman in Ankara complained about US preachers telling their congregations that Bush launched the Iraq war to “facilitate Christ coming back into the world”.
Others contended that the American media were not allowed to criticise Bush. “Sometimes I wish that was the case, but it’s not,” Hughes joked.
Some of the criticism Hughes encountered clearly went beyond perceptions and to the heart of US policy.
The Iraq war and Bush’s strategy to bring democracy to the wider Middle East dogged her every stop.
“I expected that I would hear from a lot of people who disagree with our policies and we did hear that”
Karen Hughes, US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy
“I am not anti-American, but I am anti-war and anti-violence,” said Serpil Sancar of the Women’s Studies Centre at Ankara University.
Many were forthright and passionate in expressing their opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the US push for democracy in the region.
“War is not necessary for peace,” said Feray Salman, a human rights activist. She said that Washington “can never ever export democracy and freedom from one country to another”.
Asked if her job were meaningless because she did not appear to have changed many minds, Hughes shot back: “Should I just throw up my hands and say I give up?”