Bush aide steps down from 'mission impossible'

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President George Bush works in mysterious ways.

Two years ago, he appointed one of his most trusted aides, his former communications adviser Karen Hughes, to lead the administration's fight-back against Islamic extremism in an attempt to improve America's image abroad. Although well versed in PR, Ms Hughes speaks only English and a smattering of Spanish.

Now, in a decision just as perplexing, he has allowed her to desert the administration for a second time to return to her native Texas, at a time when she has failed to make any inroads in the predominantly negative perceptions of America abroad, which remain prevalent not only in the Muslim world, but also in Europe.

"You can't expect the polls to go up at a time of war," she says in defence of her decision to leave her job as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

She is the latest close Bush aide to announce her resignation, and will follow Karl Rove, the man known as "Bush's Brain," out of the administration, in a blow for the man for whom she has worked since the 1990s.

Ms Hughes is a forthright official who makes no bones about taking the argument to President Bush's detractors. She is, after all, speaking to The Independent which excoriates her boss on an almost daily basis. "It's part of my job," she says, adding: "I even talk to the New York Times."

How does she explain that, according to at least one international opinion poll, Mr Bush is considered as dangerous as Osama bin Laden? "It's very hard," she replies. "First of all, as someone who's known the president for a long time, that's appalling to me.

"The president has had to make a number of very difficult decisions that in some cases people around the world have not agreed with, even though he made those decisions in the name of protecting the American people and protecting – even more broadly, he believes – the security interests of the world at large."

The decision to invade Iraq remains the core complaint from people she has met in some of the 40 countries she has visited. But she also hears protests about the Nato presence in Afghanistan. "Foreign troops in a Muslim country is something people object to," she says.

The message Ms Hughes wants to get across to the rest of the world is that the real America is not the same place you see on television, in both news footage and some entertainment shows which, she says do not reflect American family life. And she wants to correct the misperception that "the war on terror is somehow aimed against a faith".

"The images being portrayed around the world do not represent the real America," she says. But she recognises that "at a time of war it's very difficult to deliver other messages, because pictures of violence crowd out other images."

America remains a "proud beacon for human rights", she argues, despite the images of the abuse at the Iraqi jail of Abu Ghraib, the continued existence of the Guantanamo detention centre, and the outsourcing of torture to "black site" prisons outside America.

"Those pictures from Abu Ghraib were sickening. They were sickening to Americans and they were sickening to people across the world." She points out that those who carried out the prison abuse are now serving jail sentences: "I would submit to you that not very many audiences around the world know that, because those pictures got front page news, but the prison sentence did not. That's an example of the fact that it's very challenging at a time of war, at a time of difficult decisions, to convey accurate information."

The issue of torture, she goes on, is "a subject of great debate in America as well", as is Guantanamo. She says she has discussed the detention camp on "many occasions" with President Bush because of the negative image it creates of the US, and the president wants it closed. But "in Guantanamo, there are individuals who threaten American security and continue to say they want to kill Americans. We'd like to transfer them back to their own countries but they won't accept them or guarantee that they won't torture them. So in guaranteeing our own system of human rights, it's difficult to close Guantanamo."

Ms Hughes, who was in London yesterday to address a conference of the International Public Relations Association, recounted how she was advised by several friends not to take on the public diplomacy job which had been described as "Mission Impossible."