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Bush Expected to Encounter Anti-US Sentiment During Indonesia Visit


President Bush visits Indonesia next week to meet with his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Both sides say they will discuss security issues, health, education and investment, but many political analysts agree that U.S. foreign policy - especially as it intersects with the Muslim world - will be a major topic of discussion.

Indonesia's balance blend of secular democracy and moderate Islam coincides with U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.

The country, which has the world's largest Muslim population, has transformed itself since the ouster of the dictator Suharto in 1998 into a democratic nation.

However, Indonesia also is the home of an al Qaida-linked organization called Jemaah Islamiyah, which has carried out a number of terrorist attacks over the past several years, killing hundreds of people.

After a period of strained relations in the 1990s, primarily over U.S. concerns about human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, the overall relationship is now relatively good. Jakarta has become an important U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.

But U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, is a sore spot among many Indonesians.

Sidney Jones, the director of the Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group, a security research organization, says President Yudhoyono will be shaking hands with Mr. Bush next week against a background of strong anti-American sentiment.

"I think it's going to be a very difficult visit because the mood in the Indonesian public is so anti- the U.S., particularly because of the war in Iraq, the war in Lebanon, and the war in Afghanistan," Jones said. " So I think that President Yudhoyono is going to have to tread a very careful line of welcoming an important head of state and an important donor, and yet not being seen to capitulate in any way to the United States."

Jones says the main focus of Indonesian anger seems to be President Bush himself, whom many here accuse of being a warmonger and an opponent of Islam.

"I think many Indonesians are particularly anti-Bush, they're not anti-American in the sense of having any kind of hostility towards the American people per se. But Bush really is the focus of resentment and anger on the part of many Indonesians, and I think that in that sense there's going to be a lot of protests when he comes," explained Jones.

Small protests against the U.S. president's visit have been taking place almost daily in several Indonesian cities, including Bogor, just south of Jakarta, where Mr. Bush is to meet Mr. Yudhoyono on Monday.

But Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political analyst at the Habibie Center, a Jakarta research institute, says it is in Indonesia's best interests to maintain good ties with the U.S.

"I think Indonesia's relations with the U.S. is one of the most important bilateral relations for Indonesia," Dewi said. "Indonesia does need a lot of things from the U.S. - economic assistance, and in terms of military-to-military relations. The United States is the single superpower at the moment, which cannot be ignored."

When the December 2004 tsunami struck Indonesia's Aceh province, killing more than 160,000 people there, the quick response by the United States military engendered a great deal of goodwill toward the U.S. here.

But that goodwill dissipated as U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East became more unpopular here.

Dewi says the United States bears part of the blame for this unpopularity. She says Washington has spent the past few years focusing too much on Iraq and the Middle East.

"While in fact as the world's sole superpower the U.S. has interests all over the world, it really cannot afford to only pay attention to one region to the neglect of the other, and in the past couple of years, the U.S.'s preoccupation with the Middle East has to a certain extent damaged the U.S.'s standing in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia," Dewi said.

American officials in Jakarta say Mr. Bush's visit is aimed at strengthening overall ties, and will not be confined to issues of terrorism and security. They say it will cover such non-security issues such as health and education, as well as economic issues, such as increasing U.S. investment here.