US tsunami aid still reaps goodwill

A recent poll found Indonesians' support for the US is almost as high as it was in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

In one corner of the Islamic world, humanitarian efforts from American marines and civilians dramatically improved Muslims' view of the United States, according to a recent survey from a Washington-based nonprofit group.

The Terror Free Tomorrow organization focused not on a Middle Eastern country, however, but on the world's most populous Muslim nation - Indonesia. Conducted roughly a year after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the poll found that Indonesians "with a favorable opinion of the US" has nearly tripled in the past three years - something experts attribute to American reconstruction efforts in the hardest-hit Aceh Province.

But in order to sustain the feelings of goodwill, the US will need to make broader foreign policy changes, say analysts and Muslim leaders.

"You don't need to hug Indonesians to death," explains Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a former presidential adviser on foreign affairs. "But the US does need to be more even-handed in its dealings in the Middle East, [and] more sophisticated in its dealings with the Muslim world."

The poll of 1,177 Indonesians in late January found that those "with a favorable opinion of the US" jumped from a low of 15 percent in May 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq, to more than 44 percent in January of this year. A similar poll released by the Pew Research Center in June last year also said tsunami aid had changed Indonesian opinions of the US.

"The military aid [after the tsunami], humanitarian help, and private philanthropy ... boosted the image of the US," says Djoko Susilo, a legislator on parliament's security commission, noting that "even rich Indonesians" don't generally give money to such causes.

Terror Free Tomorrow commissioned the poll as a follow-up to a January 2005 survey that found a significant increase in Indonesian support for the US.

"I was very surprised," says the organization's president, Kenneth Ballen. "In a year that's included Koran desecration and the ongoing war in Iraq, you'd think support would have fallen." Instead, the percentage of Indonesians reporting a favorable view of the US was nearly the same a year later.

The 2006 poll, conducted by the respected Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) also said "support for bin Laden and terrorism has dropped to its lowest level since 9/11." In addition, the percentage of Indonesians with very unfavorable views of the United States fell from 48 percent two years ago to just 13 percent in January.

Saiful Mujani, an LSI researcher who supervised the January poll, credits intense media coverage of US humanitarian aid for the shift in opinion. In December 2004, just weeks before the tsunami, Mr. Mujani completed a separate survey finding that "anti-Americanism was still strong. The tsunami changed that."

But not everyone is convinced. "My impression, in discussions with student groups and Muslim leaders, is that feelings towards the United States are overwhelmingly negative," saysSidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director for the International Crisis Group.

To be sure, it's still easy to find signs of anti- American sentiment here. On Feb. 19, hundreds of members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front pelted the US Embassy with rocks, eggs, and tomatoes, in protest over alleged US support for the publication of the Muhammad cartoons.

"There's still a lot of lingering resentment over [the war in] Iraq," said Azyumardi Azra, rector of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.

Muslim leaders said that Indonesia's historically good relationship with the US was also strained by United States' support for Israel and negative comments over the democratically elected, but hard-line Palestinian group Hamas.

But if the US "wants to support democracy, [it] will have to drop its double standards over the Middle East," says Muhyidin Djunaidi, chairman of the foreign affairs council for the national Islamic scholars' council

Tiffatul Sembiring, president of parliament's Islamist Justice and Prosperity Party explains that "the image of the US is interchangeable with its global chess game," adding that "if the US wants to improve its image, it has to be consistent. Standards over nuclear weapons, for example, have to be the same for all countries."

On a visit to Indonesia in October last year, US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes faced a grilling from students of Mr Azra's university over United States' policy in the Middle East. She later commented that it was similar to questions she got in the Middle East. Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently that humanitarian contributions could help change perceptions of the US, referring to improved public views in Pakistan following American aid efforts after the Kashmiri earthquake.

Mr. Susilo,of parliament's security commission, recommends more education - including more Indonesians studying in the US.

"An alliance of civilizations, [rather than a clash] is possible because of a younger generation of Muslim leaders, educated in the States," says Muslim Abdurrahman of the Al-Maun institute, which trains young Muslim leaders.

A case in point is Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who received a US scholarship for officers in the 1980s. He calls the US his "second home."

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