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Official plants seeds of America's ideals

"It is vitally important that America reach out," U.S. official Karen Hughes said on Friday.
"It is vitally important that America reach out," U.S. official Karen Hughes said on Friday.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

To say pitching American ideals in today's world isn't easy might be an understatement.

But Karen Hughes, who has visited more than 40 countries as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said, "it is vitally important that America reach out."

Hughes spoke Friday to a group comprised mostly of women at the 23rd annual Women's Conference hosted by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and his wife, Elaine.

The half-day conference at the Grand America Hotel focused on issues from overcoming domestic violence to breaking the glass ceiling.

During her address and while meeting with reporters afterward, Hughes stressed the importance of public diplomacy in advancing the ideals of opportunity and democracy. She also emphasized that "the women of the world ... are absolutely vital to our success."

A charismatic Texan who once worked in broadcast journalism, Hughes describes her job as the public face of America, as planting seeds. She said it will likely be decades before there are major advances in improving the world's perception of the United States.

"I knew when I took this job we weren't going to change public opinion polls on America at a time of war," she said.

But, she said, the first step is turning global public opinion against "those who want to kill us," and she said progress is being made on that point.

"We are making headway in exposing terrorists for who they are, that is essentially a death cult," she said. "Most of their victims are innocent Muslims."

She used her presentation to stress some of the positive aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy, including the effort to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and a program that taught English to youths in the Middle East.

She pointed to a 13-year-old girl in Afghanistan who told her she wanted to write a book some day. The girl told her that women should be free to go to work and school and choose their own husbands.

Yet, events such as the opening of a new school aren't as likely to make headlines as are bombings, she said. And, "Any negative news makes my job more difficult."

There are plenty of negative headlines going around, from images of prisoner torture to the more recent shooting deaths of civilians in Iraq by Blackwater USA security personnel.

Hughes points out that the prisoner torture was a crime that has been punished and that the Blackwater incident is under investigation.

Another controversial issue, the administration's stand defending controversial interrogation techniques, described by many as torture, is often at the center of public attention.

Of an open letter by documentary producer Sidney Blumenthal calling on Hughes to persuade the administration to change its policy, she suggested it would be more appropriate to address such a letter to "our opponents" who are "beheading people."

Hughes said there are two key misperceptions she faces in the Muslim world. Muslims worry that the war against terrorism is a war against their religion. And, she added, there is offense taken regarding American critics who say that Muslims don't speak out against terrorism, but "they do speak out all the time."

Hughes said she's taking measures to counteract negativism about America in steps such as "aggressively engaging the international media."

She's started blogs in Arabic that correct misinformation about America, and has worked to bring hundreds of clerics to the United States to see the nation firsthandfirst-hand, and to the same end has worked to rebuild the student visa program.

She's also looking at a project to collect the stories of real Americans, pointing to University of Utah geneticist Mario Capecchi, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Capecchi nearly died as a young boy, when he was turned out on the streets while his mother was interred in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.

Seeing Americans first-hand helps to build understanding, Hughes said, urging Friday's audience to travel abroad or take in a foreign exchange student.

"We must work for a greater understanding and respect for different faiths and cultures," she says. "Together we have the opportunity to imagine a better and safer world. I hope you will take the opportunity to seize it and bring it out."