WASHINGTON — In a blow to the Bush administration's troubled efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world, Margaret Tutwiler, the newly confirmed undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, resigned Thursday to join the New York Stock Exchange.
Tutwiler, who was sworn in 4 1/2 months ago, had said before she took office that she would leave at the end of President Bush's current term, whether or not he was reelected. In a telephone interview Thursday, she said she was not leaving because of policy differences.
Tutwiler had told associates over the last months that she was disappointed at the amount of money and staff provided to polish the U.S. image abroad. But Thursday, the communications whiz who has served in three Republican administrations declined to comment on that question.
"This has been an agonizing decision for me to make," Tutwiler said. "But I always said I was in a position to serve for only one term, and this is leaving only four months shy of the election. I'm not leaving in a huff. I love government and public service. But I needed to stick to my plan."
Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Harrison, who is in charge of educational and cultural affairs, was to fill Tutwiler's post temporarily, as she did in the nine months before Tutwiler took the job, a senior State Department official said. But others said no permanent replacement was likely to be named until after the November election, leaving a void in what many saw as a crucial policy job.
"This is a muck-up of massive proportions," said John Zogby, a pollster who has worked extensively in the Muslim world and who sat on a congressional commission a year ago that urged the administration to spend more money and energy on efforts to defuse the growing hostility toward the United States, especially in Islamic nations.
"This is spinning out of control at a time when we most need public diplomacy," Zogby said. "The war is going badly and alienating people all over the world. Other diplomatic efforts are failing and alienating people all over the world. And now we need to search for a [new] person in charge of public diplomacy."
An aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the resignation "bad news for public diplomacy."
"This [program] needs a champion, and now there won't be a champion for at least a year," Mark Helmke said. "You need someone who will break the china, get the active backing of the secretary and the president, and get things done. Until that happens, we're all thumbs."
Tutwiler, 53, worked in the Reagan administration as an aide to James A. Baker III, who served as Treasury secretary and chief of staff. Later, she was Baker's spokeswoman during the first Bush administration, in which Baker was secretary of State.
Tutwiler was ambassador to Morocco for two years, spending part of that time in Baghdad after the U.S.-led occupation swept into Iraq last spring. She returned to Washington in August to take up the public diplomacy job, winning confirmation by the Senate in December.
At the time, many described the post as "a no-win job" because of the difficultly of improving America's standing in the Muslim world without altering some of the policies that had generated opposition there, particularly the Bush administration's perceived tilt away from the Palestinians in favor of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Some friends said Tutwiler had taken the job reluctantly.
At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, Tutwiler gave a diplomatically phrased nod to America's falling popularity ratings abroad.
"As we all know, unfortunately, our country has a problem in far too many parts of the world today, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia," she said, blaming Republican and Democratic administrations. "Just as it has taken us many years to get into this situation, so too will it take many years of hard, focused work to get out of it."
The State Department official noted that Tutwiler served in the job for four months before she was confirmed, and that she would stay on until June 30, when the United States was scheduled to hand over sovereignty to Iraq.
"You would not be faithful to the facts or the spirit to look at this as 'rats leaving a sinking ship,' " the official said. "Her departure should not be confused with an end to public diplomacy efforts or a comment on the effectiveness of her efforts."
Among Tutwiler's accomplishments, the official said, was ensuring that U.S. embassies did not focus solely on winning the good opinion of political elites, but that they also reached out to the general public and to young people by expanding exchange programs for foreign journalists, establishing a scholarship program for young people to study English, revamping the State Department's overseas book program to appeal more to youth, and setting up links between American and foreign universities. Tutwiler will join the New York Stock Exchange on July 12 as executive vice president for communications and government relations.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination of John D. Negroponte as the first U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Negroponte is expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week.