Clinton wants to improve U.S. image with Muslims

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is hoping to rehabilitate America’s image abroad, especially with Muslims, during a visit to Indonesia and to strengthen economic and development ties with Southeast Asia.

She arrived Wednesday, her second stop in an inaugural overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat.

While in Jakarta, Clinton intends to announce plans to step up U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia, 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 and she is likely to signal U.S. intent to sign the regional bloc’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Clinton will also pledge to attend the group’s annual foreign ministers meeting in Thailand this year, U.S. officials said.

Development and climate change also will top the agenda during her meetings with Indonesian leaders, along with the Iranian nuclear dispute and the war in Afghanistan.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic nation, and it has personal ties for President Barack 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 folks songs and waving Indonesian and U.S. flags.

During Clinton’s first 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 24 hours in Indonesia, she travels to South Korea and China, where Pyongyang will again likely be a major topic.

But in Tokyo on Tuesday, Clinton previewed the new approach to dialogue she will try out in Southeast Asia. During a town hall student meeting, she said that 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 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 because although they just had peaceful elections, as you know, that they never would have had under Saddam Hussein, the process was extremely controversial," 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.