- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Visiting the country with the world’s largest Muslim population Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration’s outreach to Muslims is only part of a broader engagement with “the entire world” and not “singling out” a specific group.

During his election campaign, President Obama repeatedly emphasized his intention to repair Washington’s relations with Muslims, which were seriously damaged by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq among other policies. Mr. Obama pointedly gave his first interview after taking office to the Arab-language TV channel, Al Arabiya.

However, since Mrs. Clinton began her first overseas trip as secretary of state on Sunday, she and her aides have largely deflected questions about whether she intended to use her stop in Jakarta to reach out to Muslims.

While holding up Indonesia‘s democracy as an example for the Muslim world, Mrs. Clinton discouraged “pigeonholing” the new administration as overly concerned about how it is viewed by one particular group.

“There is no specific singling out of any country or any region or any group of people. This is a general effort to re-engage the world,” she said. “There is no pigeonholing and there is no exclusivity. We are reaching out to the entire world.”

On Wednesday, she addressed the issue directly during a visit to the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan complained that the U.S. was “absent” from the region under the Bush administration.

“It’s not just ASEAN countries that feel the United States has been absent,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Other parts of the world unfortunately do as well. Even in our own hemisphere, we have many friends in Latin America who feel that we haven’t paid much attention.”

Analysts said that trying not to overstate the Muslim outreach may serve the administration well.

“This is a shrewd approach that nicely combines the fact of the visit and its obvious real and symbolic importance, with a concerted effort to reframe the issue of U.S.-Muslim relations,” said Anthony Holmes, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former president of the American Foreign Service Association. “This recasting won’t succeed overnight, but what is so important is that there is now a consistency between our words and our actions.”

Still, the secretary admitted that visiting Indonesia - 90 percent of whose 235 million people are Muslim - on her maiden voyage was “no accident.”

At a press conference with Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, she agreed with him that his country offers proof that Islam and democracy can successfully coexist.

“Certainly Indonesia, being the largest Muslim nation in the world, the third-largest democracy, will play a leading role in the promotion of that shared future,” she said. “So we are looking forward to deepening our cooperation on a number of shared issues,” including the global economic crisis, climate change, counter-terrorism and human rights.

Mrs. Clinton announced that the Peace Corps will soon return to Indonesia, nearly 45 years after political unrest prompted its departure.

At Jakarta’s airport, she was greeted by a choir of 44 children from the capital’s Besuki elementary school, which Mr. Obama attended from 1967 to 1971. He moved to Indonesia with his mother, who re-married an Indonesian.

“I bring greetings from President Obama, who has himself said and written about the importance of his time here in Indonesia as a young boy,” she said. “It gave him an insight into not only this diverse and vibrant culture, but the capacity for people of different backgrounds to live harmoniously together.”

Mr. Wirajuda said Indonesia “shared the joy” of Mr. Obama’s election and “cannot wait too long” for him to visit the country.

Mrs. Clinton hinted, however, that a presidential visit may take time to arrange, even though Mr. Obama has vowed to give a major speech in a Muslim nation within his first 100 days in office. She told civil society leaders at a dinner that Mr. Obama has a very difficult job, and he might want to travel to a place where he is much loved at a time when he really needs that love.

Although Mrs. Clinton enjoyed an overwhelmingly warm reception, a few dozen Muslim extremists protested the visit, holding anti-American posters and setting tires on fire in Jakarta and other cities.

ASEAN’s Mr. Pitsuwan said he was thrilled to have Mrs. Clinton visit the ASEAN secretariat, where both pointed out that Mrs. Clinton’s predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, skipped two of four annual meetings of the 10-nation organization. Mrs. Clinton promised to attend this year’s gathering in Thailand.

She also offered a broader commitment to Southeast Asia and closer cooperation with ASEAN countries on economic, security and environmental issues.

“We are taking this step, because we believe that the United States must have strong relationships and a strong and productive presence here in Southeast Asia,” she said.

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