United States' Undersectary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, faced challenging questions from Indonesian students during a lively debate Friday in Jakarta over U.S. foreign policy.
A group of 15 students from Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University made it clear that Karen Hughes, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, has her work cut out for her as she tries to improve the U.S. image among Muslims in Southeast Asia.
Student Lailatul Qada was sharply critical of Washington's foreign policy at the discussion, which the U.S. embassy organized at one of the oldest and most respected Islamic universities in Indonesia.
"Bush say that we want to save the world from the terrorist. Exactly who is the terrorist?" she asked. "Bush or us, the Muslims? Exactly it is Bush in Afghanistan and then in Iraq and in Palestine, maybe it's going to be Indonesia, I don't know."
Ms. Hughes took the criticism in stride, telling journalists later in the day the exchange with the students underscored the need for the United States to polish its image abroad.
"The event at the college this morning was very interesting. One of the things I noted was that some of the language I heard was identical to what I heard in the Middle East and I think it shows the challenge of what we're up against. We're going to have to be aggressive in countering some of that information," she noted.
Ms. Hughes in is Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, to meet with Indonesian politicians, officials, Islamic leaders, and students.
Indonesia and the United States have had rocky relations in the past, but since the war against terrorism began the relationship has grown considerably warmer.
Indonesia has been hit by a series of terrorist attacks by the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah over the past several years. It has arrested and tried dozens of people responsible for the attacks.
Student Barikatul Hikmah, 20, was critical of what some people say is Washington's role as an international police officer.
"I thought that America always act as if they are police of the world by trying to solve the problem in Iraq, by trying to solve the problem in my country. Why did America always act as if they are the police of the world?" he asked.
Ms. Hughes countered the students' criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq by saying the world thought Saddam Hussein posed a threat.
"The consensus really of the world intelligence community was that Saddam was a very dangerous threat. After all, he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people when he had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, using poison gas against them," she replied.
Saddam Hussein now is on trial for ordering the massacre of 140 villagers in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt.
But legal experts say the former Iraqi leader is likely to stand trial later for gassing five thousand Kurds in 1988, killing thousands of Shiites during an uprising, and for the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Iran-Iraq war.
On Saturday, Ms. Hughes will travel to Indonesia's Aceh province, which was devastated by last year's tsunami and earthquake. She then visits Malaysia, another Southeast Asia country with a majority Muslim population.