Indonesian Perspective: Changing U.S. policy in the Arab World?

Indonesian President Soeharto announces his resignation, May 1998.

By Endy M. Bayuni, Senior Editor at the Jakarta Post and Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington

U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world is now being tested with the turmoil in several countries in that part of the world. The question being asked in Washington is whether it should maintain support for the likes of Hosni Mubarak, or whether to pull the rug out from under them.

The latter was not considered a real option in Washington until recently because of the perceived risk, rightly or wrongly, that doing so would plunge Arab countries, whose regimes had been friendly to the West, into chaos and possibly deliver them into the hands of Islamic radicals. This confusion has led to a comedy of errors as Washington reacted to the unexpected events unfolding in Egypt, arguably its most important ally in the Arab world and the largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Vice President Joe Biden, in his first reaction to the anti-government protests in Egypt, refused to call Mubarak a dictator, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went in so far as stating her belief that the octogenarian was implementing the right reformist policies. A few days later however, Clinton changed her tune by suggesting that Mubarak should prepare for a smooth transition of power.

It must have been hard for any US administration to turn its back on Mubarak, a bedrock of stability and “moderation” in the Arab world against Islamic radicalism. As a signatory to the historic 1979 Camp David peace agreement with Israel, Egypt had been an important, if not reliable, ally for Washington due to its initiatives to bring peace in the Middle East.

But the turn of events in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt suggests that the U.S. needs to change its policy in the Arab world. It remains unclear how much damage its long-held policy of supporting dictators, and the unhelpful comments made earlier by Biden and Clinton, have done to its credibility and reputation in the Arab world. (By this we mean the Arab population, and not the tyrannical regimes.)

But change it must, drastically and quickly.

Young Egyptians and Tunisians do not care so much about the U.S. reaction. In Egypt, the concern is still in the battle with Mubarak’s security forces. In Tunisia, they are struggling in forming a credible transition government. The last thing that people in Egypt or Tunisia have in their minds today is what the U.S. is thinking. The U.S. has no other policy option today other than supporting the democratic processes taking roots in the Arab world.

This would be a good time and opportunity for Washington to make the switch in policy without drawing too much attention. But what should the U.S. do, exactly, in this kind of situation? It would appear that the obvious answer is to support another “moderating” force in Egypt (or Tunisia or in any other Arab countries), one that could guarantee that it does not turn the country into another Iran,  ruled by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Such an approach however would invite accusations of US meddling and therefore directly play into the hands of the Islamic radicals. It is a sure recipe for disaster, for the Arab people more so than for the United States.

The best policy course for the United States is to do exactly what it did in Indonesia, before and after the collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998. Someone in Washington should take the trouble of reopening the Indonesian files from the 1990s (and not wait for WikiLeaks to do it for them) and learn how the U.S., through USAID, the Asia Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and a host of other organizations, had already invested heavily in helping to build a strong and credible civil society, including an independent media, in Indonesia, even as the administration was working with the regime.

No dictator or regime lasts forever. We have seen their eventual departures in Indonesia, the Philippines and the Soviet Union, and we will be seeing many more around the world in the coming years. The uprising in the Arab world is yet more proof of the universality of the desire for freedom among all peoples around the world, and not just Americans or the West. Sooner or later, these regimes or dictators will have to be removed, preferably by their own people. It’s really never a question of if, as it is a question of when.

Keeping that in mind, the best assistance Washington could provide is not in sustaining a repressive regime or in preparing a successor who would be friendly and most likely undemocratic, but in preparing the ground for democracy taking roots as soon as the dictator leaves the scene. Indonesia survived the transition from a dictatorship to democracy (with all its imperfections) thanks to the presence of a strong civil society that was able to quickly fill in the power vacuum after Soeharto called it quits in May 1998.

The military was in disarray, an interim government struggled to win credibility and public support, but a strong civil society existed to help keep the nation together and to nudge the administration to hold elections in 1999. In the absence of anyone credible enough or acceptable enough to the people, Indonesia even chose Abdurrahman Wahid, one of the most prominent civil society leaders, for president in 1999. He may not have been much of a president to some people, and the nation later even moved to impeach him, but he was there for the nation when they needed him most (God bless his soul).

Indonesia had its share of Islamist politics, which is an inevitable fact of life in any country with large Muslim populations. But the democratic elections that were organized (again with large support from the West) assured that the people had various options available to them. The free media also made sure that the election reflected the informed choices of the electorate. The Islamist political parties gained some share of the votes, but they have never won a majority.

Three elections later, Indonesia today has a stable democracy. Washington did not have to support the secular parties and did not have to lose face or credibility for its policy choices.

Would such an election in Arab countries guarantee outcomes similarly favorable to Washington? Unfortunately, this is no longer a question of choice. The U.S. has no other policy option today other than supporting the democratic processes taking roots in the Arab world. If Indonesia is an example, there should be grounds for optimism that the outcome is really the best for the people, and for the United States.

This post was originally published in the pages of Mr. Bayuni’s newspaper, the Jakarta Post.


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