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U.S. Antipathy in Southeast Asia

Has the U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia fallen apart?

November 19, 2002

Has the U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia fallen apart?

Two days before the Kuta beach bombings, a Balinese friend named Wayan Sugita explained to us that the key to warding off danger in Bali is honking one’s car horn a few times before driving across a bridge.

This, he explained, would scare off any evil spirits living in the rivers, where so many of them dwell. At the time, that seemed like enough protection for Bali.

Sadly, as we all know since the October 2002 bombings, things have changed a bit — and a fair amount of the fault lies with the United States of America.

What used to be one of the most pro-American parts of the world is now a place where young American travelers feel compelled to sew Canadian flags to their rucksacks.

Why do they do that? Simple. They feel forced to counter the nerve-wracking effect of their local peers wearing Osama bin Laden T-shirts.

Of course, the incident has already forced Indonesia to revise its "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy toward terrorists.

And the incident has forced to the center the question of whether we truly are in the opening stages of a Third World War — at least to the extent where Western symbols and Westerners themselves are always and everywhere vulnerable to attack.

Before Bali, it was arguable that 9/11 was a one-time thing — with a few after-tremors around the Middle East. Now, we know otherwise. It is a war, and it's now clearly all over the world.

But more importantly, this event should force the Bush Administration to look at its own actions — and especially the roots and danger of a clear and growing sense of anti-Americanism in Southeast Asia.

After all, there's a compelling self-interest for the United States to try to reverse this ever more virulent strand of anti-Americanism in the region.

One of the major reasons why, despite U.S. pressure, the government of the world's largest Muslim country refused to crack down on al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah in the past year is this: These groups are popular — and thus enjoy widespread political support.

It is pivotal for Americans to realize that the groups' popularity does not come from the stew of religious ferocity or territorial claims that the radical groups stand for.

Their popularity comes because of what they stand against: the United States. But it gets worse. Indonesia's current Vice President, Hamzah Haz, is running for the presidency — by aligning himself with their cause.

Some of the anger comes simply because of what the United States is. The richest and the strongest always earn resentment. But much more of the anger comes because of what the United States does.

Unfortunately, part of the blame goes directly to President Bush. If only he had taken his own advice during a face off against Al Gore in an October 2000 presidential debate.

At that time, Mr. Bush wisely said, “If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us. We’ve got to be humble — and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”

Perhaps ironically, the best advice for how to mend U.S. relations with Southeast Asia comes from President Bush's own words — before he tasted the power of the oval office.

True, it’s a very Asian attitude. And it is one that would go over a lot better here than the current policy of Washington-style saber-rattling.

The current sentiment was made abundantly clear by articles in the Jakarta Post even in the days directly preceding the attacks. Many Indonesians — as with so many other people across the world — find themselves infuriated with the U.S. president and his considerable disdain for public diplomacy.

If you do not believe the newspapers, listen to what General Jose Almonte told us. He is probably the region's preeminent strategic activist-thinker — and progenitor of 'people power.'

It was he who devised the 1986 uprising, in which millions of Filipinos poured onto the streets to face down dictator Ferdinand Marcos's tanks — and send him packing.

Almonte was also then Philippine President Ramos's national security adviser. Plus, he has long been known for his close ties with —and affection for — the United States. With all these credentials, it is America's new strategic doctrine is that bothers him.

"It is something different. Under it, Washington is saying that anywhere and anytime, it can strike — as long as it and it alone determines that there is a threat. Can we go along with this?"

It would be one thing if Americans could comfort themselves into believing that the region's growing anti-Americanism — deplorable as it may be — could be brushed off as simply a reaction to this particular President’s policies and demeanor.

But the antipathy has deeper roots. It would nonetheless be wise for Washington to focus some of its attention on what can be seen as increasing disdain for the United States in Southeast Asia. For the evil spirits presumably living in the rivers of Indonesia are getting ever harder to scare away.