Hill to Muslims: I Bring Greetings From Obama

JAKARTA, Indonesia  — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham on Thursday relentlessly hammered home the Obama administration's message that America is under new management and ready to listen and engage the world.

"When the United States is absent, people believe that we are not interested and that can create a vacuum that destructive forces can fill," she told a group of journalists after meeting with Indonesia's leader on the second leg of a weeklong Asia tour. "We don't want to be absent. We want to be present."

Earlier, she took to the airwaves, appearing on the most popular youth show in the world's most populous Muslim nation to deliver her message and bring greetings from President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood here.

"There is so much excitement in the air here," she told an enthusiastic studio audience on the MTV-style "Dahsyat" show, which translates in English to "Awesome." She said she had just spoken with Obama who wished them all well, drawing cheers.

Much of her appearance was lighthearted banter about her favorite music — the Beatles and Rolling Stones — and her poor singing abilities, but she also made clear that Washington wants to address Muslim concerns about U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Asked about the topic, which has deeply troubled Indonesians, Clinton took a shot at the Bush administration when explaining why she and Obama had appointed a special envoy to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately after taking office.

"We felt like the United States had not been as active in trying to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict," she said. "We're going to work very hard to resolve what has been such a painful and difficult conflict for so many years."

Clinton also said she would attend a donors' pledging conference for rebuilding Gaza to be held in Egypt on March 2.

Though most of Indonesia's 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, 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 country has been hit by a string of suicide bombings targeting Western interests in recent years, but experts say an effective police crackdown has sharply reduced the terror threat.

Clinton praised Indonesia for its efforts to fight terrorism while respecting human rights and for its hard-won multiethnic democracy.

She met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Thursday, but made no comment after 45 minutes of talks in his office. Yudhoyono's spokesman, Dino Pati Djalal, said a formal invitation had been extended for Obama to visit, hopefully before the year's end.

Clinton also visited a poor neighborhood in central Jakarta that has received American assistance for maternal health and childcare, sanitation and water purification. Hundreds of people lined the narrow roads to greet her.

Earlier, she announced plans to restart Peace Corps programs in Indonesia that were suspended in 1965, after volunteers were accused of espionage and expelled.

Clinton was warmly received during her two-day visit, although small and scattered protests were held in several cities, with some Islamic hard-liners setting tires on fire and others throwing shoes at caricatures of the top U.S. diplomat.

Clinton, who arrived from a stop in Japan and heads later Thursday to South Korea and China, stressed the growing importance of Southeast Asia in particular, a region that often felt slighted by the Bush administration.

Indonesia, a secular nation of 235 million people, has personal ties for Obama, who spent four years here as a child. In her television appearance Thursday, Clinton pointed out that she had met some children from Obama's former elementary school, who she said "were adorable" as they sang and waved Indonesian and U.S. flags on her arrival.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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