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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Envoy's Mid-east trip to revamp US image
Karen Hughes, a close adviser to US President George W Bush, is visiting three Muslim countries in an effort to improve public perception of the United States and its Middle East policy.

But this is a delicate task at a time when even at home, people are increasingly concerned about the situation in Iraq, the BBC's Jonathan Beale explains.

George W Bush is a man who values loyalty - and there are few more loyal than Karen Hughes.

US envoy Karen Hughes at a press conference after a meeting with Egyptian Prime Ahmed Nazief
Hughes is on a so-called 'listening tour' - her first in the region
A former local TV reporter, she has been by Mr Bush's side before he set his eyes on the White House.

Valued for her political instincts, she became a trusted presidential aide before quitting Washington to spend more time with her family back in Texas.

No one doubts that Ms Hughes has in the past been invaluable to the president in trying to keep in touch with the views of "middle America".

But there are many who question her expertise to transform opinion in the Middle East.

Selling America

Karen Hughes has taken on the role of Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy.

She denies that her job is to "sell America" - but she has certainly been charged by the president with trying to improve America's much tarnished image abroad.

Polls in much of the Arab world, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, show that more people consider Mr Bush a bigger threat to the world order than Osama Bin Laden.

Hence her first trip has been billed as "a listening tour".

She is visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - all of whose governments have friendly relations with the United States - but who are also worried about extremist elements within their own society.

Listening tour

Her first stop has been Cairo. Ms Karen Hughes has highlighted what America believes has been the progress made with the country's recent presidential elections after pressure from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr Bush.

Karen Hughes says it is a "time of promise" with a "step in the door" for more democracy in the most populous Arab country.

Karen Hughes (right) with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
The US is strongly in favour of Turkey joining the EU
She says she hopes that the people of Egypt "will insist that the door be pushed further open" with parliamentary elections due later this year.

She will be meeting members of the government, "opinion formers" and young people - but not representatives from Egypt's largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood.

That will raise questions as to how far America is prepared to listen. In Saudi Arabia she will repeat America's concerns at the country's record on human rights.

But the US recognises pressing hard for change could destabilise the country - and threaten an ally in its war on terror - so do not expect Karen Hughes to deliver a strident message.

She will continue to let the US Secretary of State and her boss - Ms Rice - set the pace on that, and Ms Rice has already acknowledged that change will come slowly.

Turkey is also another important ally for America in its war on terror.

In many ways, the US sees it as a model for other Muslim countries to follow - though it too has extremist elements.

Expect Ms Hughes to highlight America's desire to see Turkey accepted into membership of the European Union.

The Bush administration sees that as a priority for the EU helping to bridge the divide between the Christian and Muslim world.

Long-term strategy

Ms Hughes acknowledges that her job is a long-term strategy.

She is not going to change opinion overnight.

The key issue for her is trying to better explain America's strategy in Iraq - a tough one, given that Mr Bush is finding it hard enough trying to convince the American people.

She may have more luck persuading these countries that the US is seriously addressing the plight of the Palestinians.

But most of the Muslim world still consider that America is more interested in taking sides with Israel.

She will lead the "war of ideas" spreading the president's message on democracy and freedom as a God-given right; she will encourage interfaith dialogue; she will promote cultural and education exchanges.

There is no doubt that Mr Bush is serious in addressing America's negative image.

His appointment of Ms Hughes in this job is proof of that. But this job will be much harder than her earlier role of selling her president to the American people.

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