By Patricia Wilson
WASHINGTON, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Karen Hughes, a powerful confidante of President George W. Bush who has long helped shape his words and message, heads to the Middle East on Saturday as part of a new campaign to make over the U.S. image in the Muslim world.
On the eve of her first trip abroad as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Hughes said she did not expect quick results and considered the job a long-term challenge. Some skeptics call it mission impossible.
"I'm not naive," Hughes said in an interview with Reuters. "I know a lot of people that we're going to be visiting with disagree with us and certain of our policies."
The former Bush political adviser and communications guru heads for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on what she called a "listening" tour, a popular way for U.S. politicians to kick off election campaigns. She will meet with government officials, but also students, academics, religious leaders and ordinary people. She has no formal speeches planned.
"It's styled as a listening trip to show respect and to foster understanding both of people's concerns and our policies and our actions," Hughes said. "We want to open minds and encourage dialogue."
She also leaves armed with an alliterative strategy for winning over a world that often takes a hostile view of Washington and where anti-Americanism can fuel extremist groups and terror attacks.
Hughes, who likes to "boil things down to basics," said she would be guided by the "Four E's": engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment. There might have been a fifth E -- evaluation -- had she thought of it earlier, she said.
"One of my goals is to put a human face on America and American policy," she said. "I want to challenge the notion that public diplomacy is somehow about public relations or polls. It's not. It's about policy."
A GOOD LISTENER
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who recently had lunch with Hughes and found her to be "a good listener," advised her to do even more of it abroad.
"You have to know your market and to whom you're trying to sell your product," he said. "I think she got it."
Zogby predicted Hughes would find that Iraq and the Palestinians were defining issues, calling them "big nuts to crack."
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said perceptions of the United States had changed because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"If you meet any Saudis, you find this is the only frustration and they are mad because they know the good part of the United States and they are mad because they see this is inconsistent with the other side," he said on Thursday.
Apart from the war in Iraq, U.S. policies like the detention of foreign prisoners suspected of ties to terrorism at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the mistreatment of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, have been widely criticized overseas.
Even what might appear a minor slight can have a major impact, said Sayyid Mohammed Syeed, who heads the Islamic Society of North America.
He cited the case of Islam Yusuf, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who was deported back to England last year after the U.S. Homeland Security Department accused him of having some unspecified relationship with terrorist activity, although it offered no proof.
The incident was an embarrassment that only helped tarnish America's image and represented the kind of miscommunication that Hughes could help avert, he said.
"That was a devastating blow and did not achieve anything," Syeed said. "That was only the result of ignorance, but these seemingly small things can take us back miles and miles."
Hughes is the third person to hold the post of undersecretary for public diplomacy but the first who has Bush's ear and a strong support system.
To bolster Hughes, Bush sent the Egyptian-born Dina Powell, his White House personnel director, to be her deputy, while Condoleezza Rice, one of the president's closest advisers and a good friend, is secretary of state.