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Bush's Envoy Faces Tough Audience

Indonesian students give Karen Hughes, chief of public diplomacy, an earful about U.S. policy.

October 22, 2005|Dinda Jouhana and Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writers

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Karen P. Hughes, President Bush's public relations envoy, came here Friday to promote the United States but instead found herself facing a skeptical audience and tough questions.

Meeting with students at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy sought to explain the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. push for democracy around the world.

But while Hughes focused on changing America's image among Muslims, the students sought to change America's policies. One student asked whether Bush was a terrorist. Another likened the U.S. president to Adolf Hitler.

"Your policies are creating hostility among Muslims," said Lailatul Qadar, 19, one of 15 students selected by the university to meet with Hughes. "It's Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and maybe it's going to be in Indonesia, I don't know. Who's the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?"

It didn't help Hughes that in defending the invasion of Iraq, she overstated the extent of some of the alleged crimes of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"After all, he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people," Hughes told the students. "He had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people using poison gas."

A State Department official said later that Hughes misspoke.

Hussein has been accused of using poison gas once against his own citizens, allegedly killing about 5,000 in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. He is accused of killing about 300,000 Iraqis by various methods during his decades in power. He went on trial this week for the 1982 massacre of 146 Shiite Iraqis.

Hughes, Bush's close confidant, took on the job a few months ago of attempting to reverse the deteriorating image of the United States, especially in Muslim countries. She has already gotten an earful during trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, is also one of the most tolerant Islamic countries. Many Indonesians look positively on the United States. But the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as continuing conflict in the Middle East, have taken their toll on the U.S. image.

"Why does America always act as if they were the police of the world?" Barikatul Hikmah, 20, asked Hughes.

Twenty-year-old Suvenni, who goes by one name, said, "Unfortunately the way you want to promote democracy, human rights and everything seems to everyone in the world like you only want to secure your own national interest."

After meeting the students, Hughes stressed that she was here to listen to their points of view and that it would take 10 to 20 years to change perceptions of the United States.

"I think it's important people see an American official listening to their point of view," she said. "Does that mean I'm going to change their mind because I come here to talk with someone who is against the war? No. But it does mean that our government is willing to listen to different points of view."

In meeting with reporters, Hughes also addressed the latest embarrassing incident involving U.S. forces in a Muslim country: the broadcast this week of videotaped images of U.S. soldiers burning the bodies of two slain Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Muslims view the burning of bodies as desecration.

"It is abhorrent," Hughes said. "The important thing that the world needs to know is that it is a violation of our policy."


Jouhana reported from Jakarta and Paddock from Singapore.

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