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Targeting America


It's a strategy that can backfire badly


It was not the sort of message Indonesia would want to send the world. About 100 young men wearing military-style uniforms and identifying themselves as members of a Muslim militia fanned out across the tourist hangout of Solo in central Java. They barged into several hotels and insisted that any American guests be expelled. In the end, the militants left peacefully enough, but not before leaving behind leaflets demanding that all Americans in the country, including U.S. ambassador Robert Gelbard, get out or "face the consequences."

Last week's Solo incident comes as strong anti-American sentiment is sweeping Indonesia. Though street protests have now faded, until very recently Muslims screaming slogans against Washington were a common sight in front of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. Last week the embassy was closed for fear of what it called a "credible" terrorist attack. Gelbard is under heavy guard because of death threats, and the State Department has warned Americans to keep a low profile while traveling in Indonesia. Like their brethren elsewhere, many Indonesian Muslims are incensed over Israel's crackdown on Palestinians in Jerusalem, which they blame on the U.S., Israel's biggest ally. Their fury has to do, too, with what they perceive to be high-handed interference by Washington in Indonesia's internal affairs.

The U.S. and Indonesia have traditionally been pals. Washington backed military strongman Suharto as a bulwark against Asian communist advances during the Cold War and viewed Indonesia, with its wealth of natural resources, as a good place to do business. While relations with President Abdurrahman Wahid are not as established, the U.S. acknowledges him as a moderate Muslim with democratic instincts who is leading Indonesia when radical Islam is spreading fast as a political force.

But in recent weeks top U.S. officials have been sharply critical of Jakarta, largely because of the September murder of three U.N. workers in West Timor by local militias. Defense Secretary William Cohen even threatened sanctions if the thugs were not disarmed. In addition, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, often seen in Jakarta as Washington's proxies, have deplored the slow pace of reform in the country, and donor governments have indicated they may withhold much-needed aid if Jakarta does not deliver on its pledge to defang the West Timor gangs.

Then there is ambassador Gelbard. The 55-year-old Harvard-educated (master's in economics) New Yorker is a rare career diplomat, who speaks plainly — and bluntly. Named to the Jakarta job last year after serving as U.S. President Bill Clinton's special envoy in the Balkans, Gelbard has been articulating Washington's activist policy toward Indonesia. Even before the West Timor murders, Gelbard charged that the military was supporting the militias: "We were told all the militias had been disarmed. Yet suddenly and magically they come up with arms. There is military involvement." Says another Western ambassador: "Gelbard has spoken the truth, but the problem in this country is that people don't like hearing the truth in a blunt fashion."

This being Indonesia, little can be taken at just face value. Many Indonesians are genuinely upset by what they feel is Washington's arrogance. At the same time, standing up to a superpower like the U.S. has its political uses. By telling Cohen to butt out and by calling for Gelbard to be kicked out, Wahid's enemies — like the powerful speaker of the upper house, Amien Rais — are exploiting the anti-Americanism to embarrass the president. Also, targeting the U.S. is a surefire way to divert attention from the failure of Indonesian politicians to build any momentum for reform and economic re-construction. "This is more to do with the crisis in Indonesia," says Hans Vriens of Apco Indonesia, a consultancy that advises foreign companies on investing in the country. "The U.S. and the ambassador have been caught in the middle."

In recent days, Wahid and Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab have tried to set things right with the Americans by publicly repudiating the inflammatory calls to kick Gelbard out. The stakes are high for Indonesia. Its international image is already taking a beating from the unceasing violence and the perception that Wahid and his government are unstable and could fall at any time.

So angering a nation that ranks in your top ten foreign investor list, is your biggest customer for non-petroleum products and which carries substantial weight within multilateral agencies pouring billions of dollars into your country is an unwise strategy. "If the anti-Americanism continues," says Noke Kiroyan, president of the mining giant Rio Tinto Indonesia, "it will be bad for business." Adds Vriens: "It will make big investors think even harder about investing in the country." That's the message the world is sending Indonesia.