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Political pundits miss point of first lady's trip

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia - There's no substitute for being there, as has been illustrated by the reaction to an image of Laura Bush's alleged abaya-wearing incident during her recent visit to the Middle East.

Unlike most who have commented, I was there - one of three members of the American media invited to accompany Bush on her journey. The others were Greta Van Susteren of Fox News' "On the Record" and Robin Roberts of ABC's "Good Morning America."

The controversial photo shows Bush donning a black headscarf decorated with the iconic pink bows signifying breast cancer awareness. It was the only time Bush covered her head during the trip, and the episode lasted perhaps a minute.

The scarf in question was a gift to Bush from a dozen Saudi women who shared their experiences fighting breast cancer with the first lady. The morning meeting was touching and intimate, the sort of bonding experience that opens hearts and minds in diplomatically useful ways.

Upon receiving the gift, Bush did what any decent, well-mannered person would do. She demonstrated her appreciation by placing the scarf on her head. In Saudi Arabia, it was a sweet, wordless gesture of friendship and mutual respect.

Yet to read and hear remarks over the past few days, you'd think Bush had organized a pilgrimage to the stoning fields. Remind me: When did rudeness work as a diplomatic strategy?

Not only were the facts concerning the scarf incorrectly stated in some cases, but in at least one instance, the alleged image was a retread. Sunday morning, when Chris Wallace interviewed Bush on Fox News, the cable program featured a photo of the first lady that the White House says was taken in 2005 at Israel's Western Wall.

On Monday, a column posted on The Jerusalem Post's Web site carried the headline, "Our World: Laura Bush's embrace of tyranny." Huh? Columnist Caroline Glick wrote that Bush's donning of the scarf and her visit in general were symbolically "deeply disturbing."

Glick's point, reiterated elsewhere throughout the blogosphere, was that Bush was effectively endorsing the subjugation of Saudi women by wearing the scarf.

Camel dust.

It's true, obviously, that Saudi women have few rights - though they do own 40 percent of businesses and 70 percent of the nation's savings accounts, according to U.S. Ambassador Ford M. Fraker.

And while we might find Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi brand of Islam off-putting, insulting Saudi women isn't likely to tilt their sympathies our way. The women with whom we met didn't convey much urgency in shedding the abaya.

Upper-class and royal Saudi women enjoy wearing Western styles when they travel and wear the abaya when they're at home. Would they - or their less-privileged countrywomen - prefer to toss their black robes aside completely? Who knows? But of this much we can be certain: If Saudi women do decide to chuck their abayas, it won't be because Americans think they should.

That said, reform is in the air, thanks in part to these woman-to-woman encounters, and whatever changes eventually evolve will be helped by respectful exchanges such as those led by the first lady.

Other criticism of Bush's visit, meanwhile, has focused on her concentration only on breast cancer and not other women's issues.

First of all, the trip was specifically about the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research. Second, you don't win people's confidence by offending them. Finally, breast cancer in the Middle East is a woman's political issue.

Making breast cancer the centerpiece of what was fundamentally a diplomatic mission was frankly a savvy and calculated move. Whatever their flaws, Saudi men - like their American counterparts - do not want their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters to die of cancer. One thing leads to another, and a woman's right to insist on health care to combat a deadly disease cannot be dismissed from broader rights and reforms.

In fact, breast cancer was not the only piece of Bush's mission. In Kuwait, four high school students participating in the U.S. State Department's English Access Microscholarships Program, part of the larger Middle East Partnership Initiative, spoke passionately about their experiences studying English, American culture and democratic principles.

The aim of the initiative, now in more than a dozen Arab countries, is to foster leadership development, economic growth, cultural understanding and women's empowerment. The Kuwaiti students, including two teenage girls, mentioned their newly gained sense of freedom and their hopes for a democratic future that sounded remarkably American.

If that's not successful diplomacy, I don't know what is.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kparker@kparker.com.