TOPICS : America’s charm offensive

President George Bush’s controversial appointment of John Bolton, a reputedly abrasive Republican hawk, as US ambassador to the UN sits uneasily alongside the mission statement proclaimed only last week by Karen Hughes, America’s new image maker-in-chief.

“There is no more important challenge for our future than the urgent need to foster greater understanding, more respect, and a sense of common interests and ideals among Americans and people of different countries, cultures and faiths,’’ Ms Hughes told the Senate. She admitted her job as under-secretary of state for public diplomacy would be difficult. But she said America’s aim was to reach out to other countries rather than confront them. Unlike Mr Bolton, Ms Hughes’ nomination was unanimously approved. But it likewise surprised some in Washington. She is a White House insider with scant foreign experience. At a time of unprecedented anti-American feeling, her task would daunt the most seasoned diplomat. But she has two advantages over her predecessors.

Improving overseas perceptions of America and its policies has become a top second-term priority for the administration. And Ms Hughes has a degree of influence and access to Mr Bush to make even her boss, Condoleezza Rice, envious.

The Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum noted caustically that America’s biggest public relations challenge was not especially amenable to alliterative soundbites about “engagement, education and empowerment’’.

“Friendly state visits by Laura Bush will not suffice ... Neither will more Britney Spears songs for Muslim teenagers on US-funded Farsi and Arabic radio.’’ Ms Hughes certainly needs some new post-Iraq tunes, as the 2005 Pew Global attitudes survey of 16 countries suggested. “The United States remains broadly disliked in most countries surveyed, and the opinion of the American people is not as positive as it once was,’’ Pew found. “The magnitude of America’s image problem is such that even popular US policies (such as tsunami relief) have done little to repair it. Attitudes toward the US remain quite negative in the Muslim world, though hostility towards America has eased.’’ Yet, contrary to what the Bolton affair suggests, there is more to Ms Hughes’ appointment than touching up the paintwork on the Bush bandwagon. The US knows it has a problem - and is moving to tackle it. The administration’s decision to drop the phrase “global war on terror’’ in favour of “global struggle against violent extremism’’ appears part of a wider effort to de-emphasise military solutions and to recruit European allies to help attract moderate Muslim opinion.

Ms Rice’s “practical idealism’’ in foreign policy is said to be gaining ground over the neo-conservative ideologues of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. The refashioned White House emphasis is on promoting democracy. The bottom line is whether Mr Bush accepts that policies as well as presentation will have to change if America’s image is to be rehabilitated. —The Guardian