Clinton Seeks to Improve U.S. Image With Muslims

February 18, 2009 - 10:12 AM
<br />
Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is continuing the Obama administration's efforts to rehabilitate America's image abroad, especially with Muslims, during a visit to Indonesia that began Wednesday.
 
The country, once the home of President Barack Obama, is the second stop in her inaugural overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat. The itinerary is intended to symbolize the administration's commitment to Asia.
 
In Jakarta, Clinton intends to announce plans to step up U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia in particular, stressing the growing importance of a region that often felt slighted by the Bush administration.
 
Her two-day schedule in Indonesia includes a visit to the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat, the first by a secretary of state, where she is likely to signal U.S. intent to sign the regional bloc's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, officials said.
 
Clinton also plans to pledge to attend the group's annual regional security conference, they said. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped the ASEAN Regional Forum twice during her four years in office, to the dismay of the region.
 
In addition, Clinton said she hopes Peace Corps operations will resume in Indonesia following a long absence. Peace Corps volunteers served in the country between 1963 and 1965 before being expelled by the government.
 
After meeting with Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Clinton said she was "pleased to announce that the Peace Corps will be negotiating an agreement for a program here in Indonesia."
 
Development and climate change also will be the agenda during her meetings with Indonesian leaders, who say they hope to also discuss the Iranian nuclear dispute and the war in Afghanistan.
 
Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic nation, and it has personal ties for Obama, who spent four years of his childhood here. Among those who turned out at the airport to welcome Clinton were 44 children from his former elementary school, singing traditional folk songs and waving Indonesian and U.S. flags.
 
Indonesia, often held up as a beacon of Islamic democracy and modernity, is a secular nation. Most of its 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, but public anger ran high over U.S. policy in the Middle East and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush years, fueling a small but increasingly vocal fundamentalist fringe.
 
The militant group Jemaah Islamiyah has carried out a series of suicide bombings targeting Western interests in Indonesia since 2002, killing more than 240 people, many of them foreign tourists. But experts say a police crackdown has severely weakened the movement; the last attack occurred more than three years ago.
 
U.S. officials said Clinton is keen to show Washington's appreciation for Jakarta's counterterrorism efforts, particularly in combatting Jemaah Islamiyah.
 
Security was tight for Clinton's visit, with 2,800 police deployed in the capital along with members of the army, according to local police. Witnesses saw scattered protests and at least five people were detained by police following a rowdy rally by 200 Muslim university students in front of the U.S. Embassy.
 
Elsewhere, some protesters set tires on fire and others threw shoes at a caricature of Clinton, screaming "Hillary is terrorist."
 
During Clinton's first Asia stop, in Japan, her two days of talks focused mostly on North Korea's belligerent rhetoric and threats of a missile test, and on the global financial crisis. After Indonesia, she travels to South Korea and China, where North Korea is again likely to dominate her meetings.
 
In Tokyo on Tuesday, though, Clinton previewed a new approach to dialogue she will try out in Indonesia and other nations. During a town hall student meeting, she said the United States was under new management.
 
"America is ready to listen again," she said. "Too often in the recent past, our government has not heard the different perspectives of people around the world. In the Obama administration, we intend to change that."
 
Later, in response to a student question about the Bush administration's perceived "prejudice" against Muslims in the war on terrorism, Clinton lamented that America's failure to communicate its intentions with the world is "one of the central security challenges we face."
 
She also acknowledged that the task had gotten harder because of the hugely unpopular war in Iraq, which she initially supported as a senator, but came to oppose. That conflict, she said, was "viewed as wrong by many in the world."
 
"I think that the war on Iraq made our argument more difficult," Clinton said.
 
Still, she stressed, the administration would not shy from the topic.
 
"I think you will see from President Obama and those of us in his administration a concerted effort to present a different position to the Islamic world without in any way stopping our efforts to prevent terrorism," Clinton said.