"I was very cognizant this was a challenge. I'm energized."
Karen Hughes, the veteran political and media advisor and newly-minted diplomat, was on message and this was the impression she wanted to leave with reporters who traveled with her as she returned from her first trip abroad as head of the Bush administration's push to explain its policies to the Muslim and Arab world.
"I expected a lot of people to disagree with our policy and they did," said Hughes. She emphasized the need to "talk about tough issues" and "listen to them and explain our policies to them."
Hughes likes to talk — she prefers the word "communicate"— and it doesn't seem to matter much whether it's with prime ministers, foreign ministers, students, activists for women's rights, or kids. This week she attracted the kind of attention usually accorded a secretary of state, not someone who holds the rank of ambassador and the title of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.
Most officials of her rank fly commercially but Hughes traveled aboard a plane belonging to the D.C. Air National Guard, which often takes congressional delegations abroad. Hughes, her deputy, Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell, state department officials and sixteen members of the press went on a six-day trip to Cairo, Jeddah, Ankara and Istanbul which Hughes touted as a "listening tour."
In some respects, it was a trip similar to others taken by senior American diplomats. There were meetings with high government officials in foreign capitals, press conferences, and interviews with the local media.
Hughes, however, is not your ordinary senior American diplomat. As a longtime advisor to President George W. Bush and a former senior White House aide, Hughes returns to Washington to report not only to her boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but also to Mr. Bush himself.
Because the relationship between Hughes and the president is so well known, it wasn't surprising she met with many officials above her rank — in Egypt, the prime minister; in Saudi Arabia, the king; and in Turkey, with the foreign minister.
But there was at least one official who apparently didn't get the word on his visiting VIP. In Jeddah, when Hughes paid a courtesy call on the Saudi Minister of Information, he greeted her by saying: "Tell me what you are seeking to hear… I'm not sure what it is." Hughes politely interjected "I'm really here to listen."