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President sends his very best

These days, the Bush administration increasingly is turning to one of its most popular envoys to the nation and to the outside world: Laura Bush.
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She will tour the pyramids of Egypt and pay respects at Israel's Western Wall, check out the local library and give a high-profile speech here. But as Laura Bush makes her way across the Middle East in the next few days, perhaps her most important mission will be trying to repair America's suffering image abroad.

"We've had terrible happenings that really, really hurt our image of the United States," she said as she launched a five-day solo diplomatic mission to this volatile region on Friday. "People in the United States are sick about it. They're very sorry that that's the image that people in the Arab world got of the United States."

These days, the Bush administration increasingly is turning to one of its most popular envoys to the nation and to the outside world. From late-night comedienne to international goodwill ambassador, Laura Bush has emerged from the first-term bubble of the East Wing to carve out a more prominent role in her husband's second term, finding an independent voice that at times has even diverged somewhat from the official White House line.

In a conversation with reporters traveling aboard her plane to Jordan on Friday, for instance, she said she thought the Secret Service should not have waited for the president to finish a bicycle ride earlier this month before telling him that an errant small plane entering restricted airspace had forced the evacuation of the White House -- including her. "I think he should have been interrupted," she said, "but I am not going to second-guess the Secret Service that were with him."

And in contrast to the president's aides, she also offered a less scathing assessment of Newsweek magazine's culpability in fostering anti-American sentiments with its inaccurate report about U.S. interrogators desecrating the Koran. "You can't blame it all on Newsweek," she said, "but at the same time it was irresponsible."

Raising her profile
The Middle East trip is Laura Bush's second foreign journey without her husband in recent months. It follows a quick visit to Afghanistan in March, when she expressed solidarity with a country still fighting Islamic radicals who segregate women.

In an interview with Fox News before leaving Washington, she said Americans will see more of her in the second term. Little wonder, given polls showing her far more popular than her husband, scoring approval ratings of 80 percent or higher, compared with his numbers in the mid-40s.

The first lady's profile was most notably raised with her wickedly funny stand-up routine at last month's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where she skewered the president for his early-to-bed habits and characterized herself as a "desperate housewife."

Ever since, the president has started nearly every speech with a laugh-line reference to the event. "I am sorry that Laura is not here -- you probably think she's preparing a couple of new one-liners," he said at a Roman Catholic prayer breakfast in Washington on Friday. "But in fact, she's winging her way to Jordan and Egypt and Israel to spread the freedom agenda."

Sensitive time in Middle East
Laura Bush is visiting the Middle East at a time of uncertainty and change in the Arab world that is underscoring the promise, as well as the challenges and contradictions, of trying to spread democracy in a region ruled by monarchs and dictators. She said she plans to emphasize the roles of women and education in creating free, functioning democracies around the world.

She is to deliver a speech Saturday at the World Economic Forum being held near the Dead Sea in Jordan. She plans to focus on democratic progress and expanded rights for women in Kuwait and Afghanistan, among other places, where recent riots and killings have amplified danger and instability.

She is also making her first trip as first lady to Israel, where peace talks and a fragile truce with the Palestinians are threatened by decades of mistrust. Her schedule includes tea with the wife of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, hosting a roundtable discussion with Palestinian women in Jericho and touring the Church of the Resurrection in Abu Gosh.

"I really, truly believe that we are as close as we have ever been to peace," she said.

Bush is to conclude her visit with a two-day stop in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak is promising free elections but imposing restrictions on who can run for office. Critics say the White House should do more to defend opposition groups and to pressure Mubarak to open up the elections and allow international monitors.

The first lady, who plans to spend much of her time with Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, said the White House is committed to strong monitors and open elections. "President Mubarak is very popular in Egypt, he's very well liked, and it's very important for him, as well as for the country, as well as an example for the rest of the countries in the broader Middle East, to show that Egypt can have free and fair elections," she said. Egypt is second only to Israel as a recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

The most recent proposal by Egypt's ruling party for this year's election would prevent a number of opposition groups from competing, including the largest, the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the rules, an independent candidate would need the signature of 250 current government officials, almost all of whom are members of Mubarak's party.

At the same time, there has been a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 400 of the group's 2,500 members have been arrested in recent weeks. "In a democracy, everybody has to participate or it won't work," Laura Bush said.

The White House has used a carrot-and-stick approach this past week, with President Bush inviting the Egyptian prime minister to the White House on Wednesday and later that night suggesting that trade with Egypt might be informally linked to election reforms.

Still, the first lady's visits to Cairo and Alexandria, where the former librarian is to visit one of the world's most famous libraries, are sure to be seen as a symbolic blessing of the Mubarak government.

Repairing a damaged image
More broadly, her mission is to help repair the U.S. image in Arab nations, which experts say remains damaged not only by the prisoner abuse scandal and the recent flap over the retracted Newsweek article but also by the Iraq war and images of an imperialist and religiously motivated United States trying to impose its views on the world.

President Bush has promised a more rigorous public relations defense by the U.S. government, but his key appointee in this area -- Karen P. Hughes, a longtime friend and communications adviser, who will handle Middle East outreach at the State Department -- has not started work yet. The Council on Foreign Relations said this week that current public diplomacy efforts are floundering.

Laura Bush counseled patience in grading the progress of democratic reforms in the Arab world, echoing the historical reminders the president uses to tell people of how long it took for true democracy to take hold in the United States.

"We started off with a perfect document," she said. "It took us almost 100 years after that to have abolition of slavery."

Baker reported from Washington.