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On Asia Trip, Clinton Shows How She'll Try to Repair the U.S. Image Around the World

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

SEOUL, Feb. 20 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new campaign and message: The United States wants to listen.

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To that end, on her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Clinton is talking a lot. Her schedule is packed with so many town halls, ceremonial events, television shows and meetings with community leaders that it has the feel of a presidential visit -- or even a presidential campaign.

Before departing tropical Indonesia on Thursday for snowbound Seoul, Clinton carved out an hour to chat with the Muslim nation's president. But she also appeared on a highly popular youth television show, "Dahsyat" ("Awesome"), met with a group of Indonesian journalists, answered questions on a radio program and went on a campaign-style walk through a lower-middle-class neighborhood, where she studied recycling efforts as hordes of Indonesians gathered around her. "I love your hat," she called out to a man in a New York Yankees baseball cap.

"There is a hunger for the United States to be present again," Clinton told reporters as she flew to Seoul. "Showing up is not all of life -- but it counts for a lot."

To a large extent, this is Clinton's new campaign -- repairing the U.S. image abroad. Her boss, President Obama, has helped ease the way simply by not being former president George W. Bush. But it is unclear whether all this public outreach will yield much beyond a few extra lines in the foreign news media, especially when America's policies -- and how they are viewed around the world -- are largely responsible for its image.

Everywhere she has gone in Asia, Clinton has tried to highlight some of the tangible ways that the Obama administration hopes to be different from its predecessor: a commitment to address climate change, the appointment of a Middle East peace envoy, a refocusing on Afghanistan and an effort to reach out to longtime U.S. antagonists such as Iran, North Korea and Burma.

The administration is so new that many of these shifts are still wisps of ideas, not fully formed policies. In some areas, such as relegating human rights in China to a side issue, it is uncertain whether Obama's team will do things much differently than Bush's.

But as every politician knows, the tone can make all the difference. Clinton has emphasized that she is looking for partnership -- or better yet, a "comprehensive partnership" -- on these issues.

Her pitch is that the problems of the world -- the financial crisis, climate change and extremism -- are so overwhelming that no country can handle them alone, certainly not the United States. Remember, she's saying, how the Bush administration went to war in Iraq virtually by itself (with Clinton's vote of approval)? That's in the past. We need help. And we want to listen.

"My trip here today is to hear your views, because I believe strongly that we learn from listening to one another," Clinton told students at Tokyo University on Tuesday. "And that is, for me, part of what this first trip of mine as secretary of state is about."

Clinton has made a big deal of her choice to go to the Pacific rim of Asia for her first trip, rather the standard European or Middle Eastern tour. Yet in many ways that has made her job easier: The U.S. image is pretty good here.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted a survey last year in the four countries Clinton is visiting this week -- China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia -- and found that the United States outperformed China in political, diplomatic, economic and human capital "soft power," a favorite Clinton buzz phrase. Indeed, the survey concluded that the view of the United States in these countries, even majority Muslim Indonesia, is "largely positive."


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