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Malveaux: First lady on goodwill trip to Middle East

White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux
Laura Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With her husband staying behind, first lady Laura Bush this week begins a five-day trip to the Middle East, with stops planned in Jordan, Israel and Egypt.

"I can't think of a better representative than Laura Bush," President Bush said Thursday. "She's going to help advance the freedom agenda -- which is really the peace agenda."

CNN anchor Judy Woodruff spoke Thursday with White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, who was to depart with the first lady when her trip kicked off later in the day.

WOODRUFF: What is it that the first lady wants to accomplish? What's the purpose of the trip?

MALVEAUX: She is going to act as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. She is going to promote the agenda of her husband. You know, her husband is not very popular among some of the regions [where] she's going to be traveling.

She is going to talk about democracy; she's going to talk about women's rights, particularly education. She is going to be traveling to Jordan first, then to Israel as well as Egypt. She'll be visiting some cultural sites, education sites. ...

The centerpiece, of course, is when she addresses the World Economic Forum before a group of business leaders. And again, she will highlight the importance of women's roles and really try to stress the administration's push for democracy. It is [hoped] that her message, perhaps, will be received a little bit better than her husband.

WOODRUFF: This trip has been planned for a long time, but coincident with the timing this week, there's this flap we have all been paying attention to here in the United States. Newsweek magazine had reported that [U.S. investigators found] the Quran was desecrated by U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay. Now they've retracted the story. It's gotten a lot of attention all over the world. What is the connection with the trip?

MALVEAUX: There's actually no connection in the sense that this was planned a long time ago, as you had mentioned. But of course, it's [hoped] it'll be very advantageous for the Bush administration to give that kind of picture, that warm picture of the first lady coming to say, 'Look, you know, we extend our good will to this region.'

There are a lot of problems with perception, U.S. perception ... [detainee abuse at] Abu Ghraib [prison in Iraq], as well as the Newsweek scandal, of course. The riots that occurred in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan -- a place where she's visited several times.

There's also a report that came out today [from] the Council on Foreign Relations that talked about the increase in anti-Americanism in the region. They said that the large perception is people don't like who we are or what we do. But it's not just about changing U.S. policy; the report also says it's about stressing the kinds of things the United States does, the kinds of reform it takes with education, the type of aid that occurs.

It's really going to be interesting to see, because her role has really, as you know, taken on a much greater profile. We saw it with French President Jacques Chirac in her trip a couple of years ago [and also with her being] front and center at the White House correspondents' dinner.

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