Bush, Yudhoyono and the power to listen

Despite strong diplomatic and economic ties, relations between the U.S. and Indonesia are strained.

TBy Ted Meinhover
Guest columnist

the United States is a global superpower and the ball is in President Bush’s court as he visits several Asian countries this week, including Indonesia today. Whether the average American is aware of it, strong and friendly ties between the United States and Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, with its young democracy and high-potential economy, can be nothing but beneficial. Indonesians, however, are much less sure about their country’s relationship with the United States. President Bush’s meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is being greeted on the one hand by political optimism and on the other hand massive and frequent protests demanding that Bush “not be allowed to set foot on our soil.”

America has the power and the will to engage in whatever foreign policy it deems fit, whether other countries agree with it or not. It is apparent, when I ask Indonesians here in Jakarta why Bush and the United States are unpopular, the most common answer is that American policies tend to ignore the human consequences on people around the world. Bush, when he meets with the Indonesian President, is in the fortunate position to be able to listen to what Indonesia has to say and to see what policies and policy changes will best help his administration and America mend and strengthen relations with Indonesia. Indonesia is a crucial ally of the United States, and an increasingly important player on the world scene. The frequency of protests and strength of words here in Indonesia that oppose Bush’s visit are sure signs that Indonesians are unhappy with the United States. There is a chance that growing discontent with America could threaten the interests of peaceful and mutually beneficial diplomacy. Friendship with Indonesia is essential if America wants to maintain its position of prominence in the world, especially considering the growing global power of China and its tenuous relationship with the Islamic world.

Indonesia is an extremely important country and is vital to the interests of America. Recently elected as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, for example, Indonesia plays an ever more important role in global politics. This role is all the more significant because Indonesia is not only an energetic democracy and is dedicated to global diplomatic dialogue; it is also the most populous Islamic country in the world. Indonesia is a cultural and political crossroads and plays the role of mediator between the worlds of Asia, South East Asia, the West, and the Islamic world. The two countries are important trading partners, and the United States and the Indonesian government have followed the Bush administration’s lead in the war against terrorism.

However, despite strong diplomatic and economic ties, it is obvious that relations between the United States and Indonesia and the entire Islamic world are strained. The agenda of today’s meeting initially included a list of noncontroversial, “soft” issues; the Indonesian government, however, has demanded that the Presidents address the Bush Administration’s policies toward Islam, especially in Palestine and the Middle East. I asked several Indonesians here about the roots of this dissatisfaction and sometimes hatred towards President Bush and America. While answers varied, all seem to agree that American policies pursue unilateral interests at the expense of other countries. What is clear is that, while some of the fundamentalist Islamic groups may be shouting with the loudest voices, the causes of anti-American sentiments in Indonesia are much deeper than simply religion.

According to an Indonesian government researcher, the groups of protesters include a few groups and individuals that are “radical Muslims,” though people fitting that description are most definitely the minority. The majority of people that have been taking to the streets, now on a daily basis, are moderate Muslims, students, families, even non-Muslim and political activists.

There is a misperception that, in Indonesia where the majority of people are Muslims, opposition against the West or America is directly related to a conflict with Islam. However, the situation is not nearly that simple. Agus, an Indonesian friend of mine studying politics here at the University of Indonesia, said that he plans to join the protests when Bush arrives. Agus is an Indonesian Christian, however, and says his motivations are American foreign policies that violate the sovereignty of other countries and have resulted in civilian death. He also cites economic reasons. He feels that America’s treatment of Indonesia as a “third world” and “borrower” country actually results in Indonesia’s greater dependence on global money lending institutions, reinforces undemocratic institutions, and keeps Indonesia subordinate to more powerful countries.

According to Agus, the motivations for radical Muslims, however, may be more complicated. They consider the political and economic relationships with America, but they are also very much driven by what they view as America’s “anti-Muslim” policies. These people don’t just make the political criticism that a “war on terrorism” has resulted in the disruption of countless lives and the deaths of thousands of civilians – they see an aggressive “war on Islam.”

Another friend of mine, a self-titled “intellectual” Muslim, said that one of the biggest barriers to harmonious relations between Indonesia and the United States is the failure of Americans to see how U.S. policies impact Indonesians as well as Muslims around the world. Indonesians see America as acting in its own self interests, in ways that do harm to Islamic people. For example, my friend cited the fact that the United States used its veto to block United Nations sanctions on Israel as it took aggressive actions against Lebanon and Palestinian territories. He said these actions, which the United States refused to stop, resulted in the deaths of over 19,000 civilians in those territories.

The relations between the United States and Islam become increasingly important when you consider the nature of Indonesia’s young democracy. Only recently has it emerged from over thirty years of authoritarian rule. Indonesia is a moderate Islamic country, and democracy is well engrained in its culture. Indonesia’s people have taken to their new democratic freedoms passionately. However, these freedoms have also opened the door to political Islam as well as the fundamentalist movement that was suppressed under the previous regime; this movement is very vocal and seems to have gained strength in recent years. As Indonesia proves, Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive. There are some Islamic parties, however, that cite religion in their opposition to the United States. As Professor John Esposito recognizes, political Islam and the foreign policy of the United States are deeply intertwined. Sometimes, U.S. policies help increase the appeal of radical Islamic parties while weakening the appeal of moderate parties. Indonesia is in a critical stage in its development, and the rise of extremism threatens its democracy, and it also threatens America’s interests. President Bush must recognize that this Islamic movement in Indonesia, and indeed around the world, is in no small way related to the global scene in which the United States plays such a decisive role.

The roots of extremism are not simply a reaction to anti-American sentiment but are much deeper. In order to truly battle terrorism and extremism in Indonesia, the United States needs to support Indonesia in its struggle to eliminate the causes of extremism, namely poverty, inequality, and institutions that corrupt democracy to empower a few.

This said, the meeting between Presidents Bush and Yudhoyono is a chance for the United States to make important inroads with Indonesians and Muslims around the world, to show that both countries are willing to adjust their policies to achieve friendship. As my friend Hendra told me, “I believe Indonesia and the U.S. can be friends and allies – but I believe something has to be rearranged.” The Indonesian people have made it clear that something is not right. The question now is whether the Indonesian leader is willing to step aside from the safe issues that make up status quo dialogue and tell the American president that things need to change. It is also yet to be seen whether the American president is willing to listen.

Ted Meinhover is a University student currently studying at UI, Depok. Please send comments to [email protected].