Clinton heads to Indonesia

February 18, 2009 12:00 am

, TOKYO Feb 18 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Indonesia on Wednesday, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, aiming to show the Islamic world that Washington wants to open a new chapter in ties.

In planning her trip to the sprawling archipelago where President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood, Clinton sees Indonesia as a good place to change the US-Muslim dynamic after eight turbulent years under George W. Bush.

"We have a responsibility to speak out and to work with the Muslim world on behalf of positive change and to enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists," Clinton told students at Tokyo University on Tuesday.

"And it is very difficult in many parts of the world today to do that," said the chief US diplomat, who acknowledged that the war in Iraq was a key stumbling block to better US-Muslim ties.

In a meeting with Japanese students, Clinton, on her first overseas trip in her new role, said she wanted to follow in Obama’s footsteps and "speak directly to Muslims."

She recalled Obama gave his first television interview to the Al-Arabiya channel and that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, whose people generally opposed Bush’s "war on terror" and his approach to foreign relations.

"And I think you will see from President Obama and those of us in this administration a concerted effort to present a different position to the Islamic world," she said ahead of the next leg of her tour of the region.

It will require, she added, breaking through anti-US rhetoric to show how the United States has in the last two decades fought on behalf of Muslims. She cited wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration also tried to reach out to Muslims with similar arguments, but the Obama team has adopted a more conciliatory tone, sought to engage US foes and moved to close Guantanamo Bay prison – for many a symbol of the excesses of the US-led "war on terror."

Clinton also pointedly speaks of a struggle rather than "war."

But the Obama administration’s outreach, Clinton added, would in no way amount to "stopping our efforts to prevent terrorism."

Analyst Michael Green said Indonesia "is an important country for the secretary to stop in" as it is a budding democracy, is "developing a strong civil society and is a large Muslim nation with influence in Southeast Asia and in the broader Muslim world."

But Green, a former senior director for Asian affairs in the Bush National Security Council, said Washington and Jakarta would likely always differ over the approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"We will never distance ourselves from Israel to the extent that we’d have to to satisfy the Indonesian public," he said.

In his inauguration speech on January 20, Obama vowed to seek a "new way forward" with the Muslim world "based on mutual interest and respect."

Faced with a set of daunting challenges across the Muslim world – from the Palestinian territories to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – Obama called for a fresh balance in using diplomatic, military and other forms of power.

Security in post-9/11 America, he pledged, would not come at the expense of abandoning the US ideals of liberty and the rule of law, which critics say were trampled on by the Bush administration’s "war on terror."

After he was elected on November 4, the first black US president promised to make a major speech in a Muslim capital, but the State Department has not said whether Clinton would lay the groundwork for an Obama trip to Indonesia.

The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Obama was raised in Hawaii and moved to Indonesia when he was six after his divorced mother remarried an Indonesian.

Indonesia has had a love-hate relationship with the United States since the 1960s, marked by US support for military dictator Suharto, who was ousted in 1998.


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