Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Mini Teaser: Indonesia's crisis could cause the strategic upending of Southeast Asia. American policymakers may need to act quickly and wisely to prevent a security nightmare.

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

Even with the best preparation, however, worsening tumult in Indonesia will make uncertainty the only certainty. Policymakers will work in an environment resembling a fast-moving drama whose cast, plot and likely conclusion change continually. Early-warning markers are therefore essential to chart the direction of change, identify qualitatively critical stages, mitigate uncertainty, and clarify choices. These are the critical markers: the effectiveness of ceasefires; the pace and scale of fighting in Aceh, West Papua and Maluku; the degree of disorder in Lombok, West Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Riau; the size and direction of refugee movements; signs that the Megawati government may be as maladroit as its predecessor; the extent of key personnel turnover in the new government; and signs of the military's increasing political role, particularly harbingers of a coup.

There are concrete steps that the United States can take to prepare for crisis. The Indonesian military is in bad odor these days because of the havoc it wreaked in East Timor. But, as the Bush Administration appears to understand, this is no time to shun an organization that could decide Indonesia's fate. Washington should use multiple channels to dissuade the Indonesian military from seizing power, for Indonesia is more likely to shatter and to be blood-spattered if the armed forces mount a coup to keep it whole. The United States should send quiet but unequivocal messages that it will not condone a coup and that the military's institutional interests--exchanges, training programs and arms sales involving the United States--would suffer if it attempts one. Economic aid and military sales to Indonesia are now suspended, but the administration should devise a plan to resume the former, both to help stabilize Indonesia and to provide incentives for its leaders to avoid reckless behavior. Nor should the resump tion of military sales and contacts with the Indonesian military be ruled out as a tool of diplomacy. The concern for human rights in Indonesia and the revulsion at the military's misdeeds in East Timor are justified and proper. But it should be understood that many more people will die and far-reaching instability will occur if Indonesia explodes. Thus, any means that could help influence the Indonesian military should not be excluded by allowing principle to trump prudence.

Washington should also declare its support for a unified Indonesia, particularly because prominent Indonesians have accused it of conniving to destroy their country. Growing violence in Indonesia will bring human rights to the forefront of American debates, and properly so. But the mechanical application of the principle of self-determination to so large and important a country will assuredly not curb but increase long-term violence and disorder. The United States should also favor settlements in Aceh and West Papua that offer autonomy and address in bold, convincing ways the economic and social problems that feed separatism in these provinces. It must, as a corollary, convey to nationalists in these regions that it will support devolution, but not secession. This is because the proliferation of mini-states in Southeast Asia and the implosion of its most important country will increase poverty and violence and unsettle the balance of power in ways that may cast a long and dark shadow. The United States shoul d therefore help identify the providers of arms and training to separatists and militias in Indonesia and use its influence to cut the supply. To help stabilize the Indonesian economy, the United States should organize a fund to support the rupiah and coordinate a long-term program to rebuild what is a ravaged country.

But the United States should not delude itself. To think that American actions can avert Indonesia's collapse is hubris or folly, possibly both. The problems gnawing away at Indonesia are numerous and complex. They may prove beyond the control of Indonesians, let alone Americans and other outsiders. If Indonesia breaks apart despite efforts at preventive diplomacy, the United States and its partners must develop plans to act on several fronts, together with international organizations. The challenges will include evacuating foreign nationals; keeping the Malacca Strait and the Lombok Strait open in the face of threats that could close them; protecting shipping from sabotage, attack and piracy; guarding and transporting refugees to pre-designated safe stations; stockpiling and conveying supplies for their care; organizing aid for post-war reconstruction; economic promoting ceasefires between government forces and separatist guerillas; and, perhaps, interposing forces between combatants so that ceasefires last and subsequent political negotiations have a chance to succeed.

The last task raises the critical matter of injecting American military power into a messy civil war--and into a country where anti-American sentiment is rising. Obviously, the United States should contemplate this measure only as a last resort, in concert with other states, and while taking care not to assume the largest obligations on the ground. Despite the dangers, though, Washington should not rule out a military role by invoking Procrustean preconditions. Maxims that recommend committing American forces only if vital interests are at issue, applying overwhelming force, defining a clear objective, and devising quick and clean exit plans seem cogent and compelling. But the confusion attending a blowup in Indonesia will torpedo tidy formulations, as may other civil wars, for that matter. Without the restoration of order and the separation of warring forces, other measures to manage a crisis in Indonesia--whether refugee relief, economic aid, or negotiations--will prove impossible. And if order is absent w ithin Indonesia, it will have to be supplied from without.

The corollary is not that the United States should insert its forces into wars (of any sort) lightly. President Bush's foreign policy advisors correctly emphasize care and restraint in this regard, and one of them, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, has special expertise on Indonesia, where he served as U.S. ambassador from 1986 to 1989. Yet even beyond Indonesia there will inevitably be other civil wars that matter strategically, that are more than purely humanitarian crises. In such cases, military power may have to be part of a multifaceted strategy for restoring order. The choice is not, as one might surmise from recent foreign policy debates, between sending the military and abstention. There is a range of options that combines military power with other policy instruments--and in cooperation with other states and regional and international organizations--and the United States must be creative and flexible enough to devise them conceptually and prepare for them operationally. Its claim to world leadership will be hollow if it ducks such a critical responsibility.

Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and director of Eurasia Policy Studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Essay Types: Essay