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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January, 2005, 14:51 GMT
An opportunity but no guarantee
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News Website

Colin Powell's visit to the tsunami-hit regions of Asia is, as he himself says, an opportunity for him to soften the perception of US foreign policy in the Muslim world.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell surveys disaster zone in Aceh
A kinder, gentler US?

But it is no guarantee. Whether the perception will be significantly changed depends on a complex mix of Washington's longer term commitment to aid and reconstruction and the direction of American foreign policy generally.

It is helpful for American military muscle to be seen to be engaged in vital relief work, especially in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country.

It is also helpful that the US secretary of state is there and to be there with the president's brother, the governor of Florida Jeb Bush.

'The good guys'

It is perhaps an effort to demonstrate what President George Bush senior said in his inauguration address in 1989: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.
The rest of world is being given an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action
Colin Powell
We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world."

But the war in Iraq goes on and while that continues, antagonistic attitudes will prevail in many places.

Mr Powell says openly that diplomacy is part of his mission.

"The rest of world is being given an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action," he said. "America is not an anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim society. We respect all religions."

His reference to "American values" is not unusual or unexpected. It fits in with the American neo-conservative view that there is no contradiction between US foreign policy as carried out in Iraq and elsewhere and its readiness to help in disasters.

President Bush himself sprinkles his speeches with references to extending "liberty" around the world.

He regards an American "helping hand" to the needy as part of that effort. Mr Powell, though not one of the ideologues of an administration he is about to leave, shares that position. In his book, America is one of the good guys.

The issue is whether others are convinced.

Indonesian example

Indonesia is an important target for Mr Powell's argument. It is an example of how the "war on terror" declared by Mr Bush ebbs and flows.

Indonesia has both produced Islamic extremists from within its own Muslim ranks - the Bali bomb in October 2002 was carried out largely by Indonesians - and has acted against them, both under the former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and the current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

One important yardstick of US foreign policy will be how it positions itself on long-term aid

The balance between extremism and moderation in Indonesia is a delicate one.

"The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90% of Indonesians are Muslim," says BBC religious affairs reporter Mark Duff.

That being the case, it is vital that US policy does not strengthen the extremists but appeals to the moderates. That is Mr Powell's aim.

But this has to go beyond a visit by himself and an aircraft carrier.

Long-term

One important yardstick of US foreign policy will be how it positions itself on long-term aid, including debt relief.

Loading water onto a US navy helicopter off the coast of Indonesia
The US is willing to boost the number of helicopters available to 90

The relief of debt is not an uncontroversial one in international aid circles. There is a view, held for example by the Financial Times, that "debt is simply the wrong place to start."

This argument holds that debt is not the main problem and its relief, while helpful, would not in itself get more money to the affected regions.

There probably will be a debt relief package for Indonesia and the others. But beyond that, the question is who will be the most generous and if the US shows willing, then it could recoup some of the ground it has lost in Muslim public opinion.

There is however always the risk that relief efforts are interpreted as a way of buying favours. No doubt that claim will be made in this case.

And extreme anti-American opinion is unlikely to be swayed by a few helicopters.


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