Karen Hughes, the recently installed chief guardian of America's image abroad, faced recently hostile questions about US foreign policy and the war in Iraq from a group of Indonesian students as she launched a south-east Asian leg of her campaign to woo the Islamic world.
Facing 16 pre-selected students in a dimly lit And halffull auditorium at Jakarta's State Islamic University, the former White House spokeswoman tried to ease her way into the discussion: "My state of Texas is very big," she told the students. "So you can imagine my surprise to learn that your country, Indonesia, is three times bigger than my big state of Texas."
She was immediately confronted by a barrage of questions on topics ranging from Iraq and US policy to Israel to racism in the US and the very legitimacy of George W. Bush's presidency given his first term was the result of a Supreme Court ruling.
"It still doesn't make sense to me that the Bush government wants to bring peace to Iraq by sending some troops and bombing," one student offered. "Bush says that he wants to save the world from the terrorists. Who exactly are the terrorists? Bush or us?" another added, drawing titters and applause from the modest audience.
Mrs Hughes later played down the significance of the students' hostile questioning, dubbing the views expressed sinailar to those heard on university campuses everywhere.
But for officials in Washington, who have in recent years staked more and more on the moderate majority in the world's largest Muslim nation as an entry point into greater dialogue with the Islamic world, the latest encounter is likely to be deflating.
Azyumardi Azra, the State Islamic university's rector and a leading Indonesian intellectual, said Mrs Hughes was wrong to be dismissive of the students' views. "I think the opinion and questions of the students in one way or another reflects the attitude of mainstream Muslims in Indonesia," he said in an interview afterwards. "All of the questions posed by students are burning issues among Muslims in general."
Mr Azra, who sat quietly alongside Mrs Hughes throughout the event, also questioned her effectiveness as an ambassador.
Her style had created hostility in the students, he said, and she had wasted a valuable opportunity to engage the students more candidly. "She could have been more successful if she was more diplomatic and not presenting herself just as a mouthpiece -- a spokesman -- for President Bush," he said.
Addressing reporters later, Mrs Hughes said changing the views of the US in the Islamic world was a "long-term challenge" and a "generational struggle" that she likened to the cold war. Indonesia enjoyed warm relations with the US during the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto. Since his 1998 fall and particularly since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, attitudes towards the US have turned dramatically.
According to a survey released in May by the Pew Global Attitudes Project about 38 per cent of Indonesians had a positive view of the US, up from just 15 per cent in 2003 but down from some 75 per cent in 2000.
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