by Ted Knap
Scripps Howard News Service
March 16, 2005
Bush, appearing with his father and former President Bill Clinton, said U.S. aid to tsunami victims in South Asia has boosted America's image in the world, particularly in Muslim nations. "I am heartened that the good folks of Indonesia, for example, see a different America now," he said.
A few days later the White House announced that Hughes, who will be given the rank of ambassador, will take over the administration's public diplomacy effort. Hughes, former top aide and confidante of Bush as governor, candidate and president, has major clout. She has the president's ear and trust as much as anyone in the administration.
Until now, Bush didn't seem to care what people in other countries thought about him or the United States. That's the impression he gave when he turned away from the Kyoto treaty, scrapped the nuclear arms limitation agreement with Russia, declared a pre-emptive strike policy and invaded Iraq despite United Nations opposition. A major factor in unfavorable world opinion about America is the perception that we don't care about other countries' interests.
Now apparently Bush has realized that it's vital to our national and homeland security to reduce the hostility against America, especially in Muslim countries. And he probably doesn't want part of his legacy to be that America became the most hated country in the world on his watch. The 9/11 Commission concluded that hostility toward the United States, especially among Muslims, is a major problem in defending against terrorism.
Hughes will head the State Department office of public diplomacy and public affairs, the moribund successor to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA.). The office has been vacant since last summer, following the resignation of its second director in less than two years.
President Bush and Hughes have a huge mountain to climb. The Pew Research Center, which does polls and public opinion surveys throughout the world, says America's favorability rating has never been lower, especially among Muslims.
In Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, the U.S. favorability rating plummeted from 75 percent in 2000 to 15 percent after the invasion of Iraq. In Morocco it dropped from 77 percent to 27 percent. In Turkey it fell from 52 percent to 20 percent. In Pakistan, 21 percent have a favorable opinion of the United States.
It's not much better in non-Muslim countries, according to Pew Global Research. In Germany, the U.S. favorability rating declined from 78 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2004. French approval dropped from 82 percent to 37 percent. Even in Britain the U.S. favorability slipped from 83 percent to 58 percent.
The polls show overwhelmingly that dislike for Bush or his policies is the biggest factor in ordinary citizens' negative opinion of the United States. So it's within his power to change that perception.
It will help, of course, to pull our troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, but not before order is restored and turmoil doesn't turn into civil war. Facilitating peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help tremendously. The president has begun trying to repair alliances on his trip to Europe and will travel soon to Asia. Less arrogance, even a little humility, in foreign policy would help our image.
Hughes' task will be to show the world that we are a good people and a good nation, and that we care about others in the world. Our aid to tsunami victims, by the government and private citizens, is only the latest example of a long record of America helping the afflicted in earthquakes, floods, fire, famine and disease. We are the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders and Aid for Developing Nations.
We need to spread the message to people, not just governments, around the world via television, radio, newspapers and the Internet. We should be able to get free time and space to tell our story, and we certainly can afford to pay for institutional advertising. Use celebrities to narrate, but the real story of the United States is showing ordinary Americans at work, at home, in school, mowing the lawn, playing with children and praying.
Don't expect a quick turnaround in our popularity. It will take years, and perhaps never succeed fully, but it must be done. Starting now.
correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.