Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2002

When fighting erupted in the West Bank area of Palestine six weeks ago, the media switched its attention away from the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign in Southeast East Asia, specifically in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Nevertheless, these two countries are among the most strategically situated states in East Asia, lying on major commercial shipping routes between the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. In addition, these sea lanes are crucial to the U.S. Navy when its ships transit from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

With 200 million people, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and includes thousands of islands extending for 3,000 miles between Australia in the south and mainland Southeast Asia to the north. Its democratically elected but weak government faces major economic and political problems following thirty-two years of authoritarian rule by a former general, President Suharto, The new president, Magawati Sukarnoputri, displays few signs of effective leadership over this sprawling country. Some observers think Indonesia, one of Asian's most important countries, is heading for a breakdown of central government authority.

The Philippines too is hampered by a relatively weak government, following the impeachment of a former president. The current chief executive, President Gloria Arroyo, shows more leadership than her Indonesian counterpart, but she faces serious problems in the southern islands from a restless Muslim population that demands local autonomy. .

A small terrorist group that has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network operates on Basilan Island. It has kidnapped foreigners, including Americans, and holds them for ransom, which it uses to buy arms for more terrorism.

Recently, President Arroyo invited the United States to send some 700 special forces personnel to help train the Philippine army to fight the terrorists. But she was obliged to compromise with key politicians who opposed the reintroduction of any American forces into the country. The U.S. military was withdrawn in 1993 following the legislature's refusal to renew a bases agreement, which included the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay and the Air Force installation at Clark Field.

The compromise reached by the Arroyo government and the Pentagon permits U.S. trainers to accompany Philippine troops on anti-terrorist operations, but authorizes the Americans to use weapons only for self defense.

The Bush administration tried without success after September 11 to persuade the Indonesian government cooperate in its anti-terror campaign and accept U.S. special forces to work with its military against suspected terrorist groups in that country. President Sukarnoputri's government resisted these offers, citing the fact that our Congress had banned military aid to Indonesia's military because of violence in East Timor three years ago.

Today Indonesia is vulnerable to al Qaida-linked terrorist activity for two reasons: its population is Muslim and identifies with Muslims elsewhere, even though its constitution provides for a secular state; and Indonesia's vast expanse of islands makes it difficult for its government to deal firmly with local unrest and Islamic elements determined to remake Indonesia as a Taliban-style theocracy. In addition, insurgent groups in northern Sumatra and in West Irian are pressing for independence.

The U.S. Stake

As the war against al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan winds down and a moderate government starts functioning in Kabul, other parts of Asia, especially those with Muslim populations, could become potential safe havens for Osama bin Laden's disciples.. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are candidates.

The governments in Kuala Lumpur and Manila are willing to cooperate with the United States in the war on terrorism, but Indonesia has resisted U.S. and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) pressure to crack down on the radical Muslim clerics who encourage their followers to work for a state that embraces fundamentalist Islamic law, one modeled on the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan

One well-known Indonesian cleric has been accused by Malaysia's government of conspiring with Malaysian terrorists to bomb several embassies in neighboring Singapore, which is host to U.S. Navy ship visits and cooperates in the war on terrorism. However, Indonesian police did not arrest him because of fear of serious violence from his followers. Some experts on Southeast Asia suggest that the presence of U.S. trainers in the southern Philippines is a way to carry out surveillance on Indonesian groups that might be working with al-Qaida to establish terrorist bases on several Indonesian islands located near sea lanes in the South China Sea. This would pose a serious problem for the U.S. Navy which uses these waters to provide security to Southeast Asia.

Indonesia's army has long been the organization that enabled Indonesia's government to maintain administrative control over the far-flung island nation.. In 1965 it saved the country from a Communist takeover and it was instrumental in establishing close relations with the United States. Regrettably, some of its officers were involved in atrocities in East Timor three years ago and, as a result, Congress stopped U.S. military assistance until the government takes action against them.

A close adviser to President Sukarnoputri was quoted recently in the New York Times ("Indonesian Official Urges U.S. to Resume Military Assistance," May 2) as saying her government hoped the United States would resume military assistance so that the army might move aggressively against local terrorists. The Pentagon favors resumption, but several key senators oppose the change until the Indonesian army changes its ways. If the aid is resumed, the Jakarta government would permit U.S. military trainers to assist its military on anti-terrorist operations.

For thirty years, until 1998, Indonesia was politically stable and advancing economically under President Suharto's firm leadership. Today its political situation is clouded and the economy has stagnated following the flight of foreign investment. Radical Muslim clerics with a growing following of supporters now pose a serious challenge to the secular nature of Indonesia's society.

It seems clear that Washington should do what is necessary to ensure that this key country remains a non-fundamentalist Muslim state cooperating in the war on terrorism. Congress should lift the ban on military assistance and the Pentagon should then help Indonesia's army to restore its reputation as the defender of a secular, democratic, and progressive state.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST

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