The end of strong-arming

Putting 12 time zones between yourself and your hometown can give you a different perspective on America and its role in the world. When in Indonesia, you hear a much different message about the future than you do inside the Beltway. The 245 million citizens living in this island nation — sprawled across 5,000-plus kilometers of the Pacific Ocean — have no doubt that they are the future. It is a message that none of us should ignore.

Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world; it is the third-largest democracy on the planet. We should all hope that the moderate Indonesian-Islamic model is the prototype for the future. The world will be a much safer place if that is the case.

Not that there is no conflict here or that terrorism is unknown to these 17,000 islands. There are pockets of ethnic conflict scattered across this far-flung geography. To get elected and stay in power, leaders must hew to some level of worldwide Islamic political orthodoxy, which frequently includes being critical of U.S. foreign policy — especially the policies that have misled America over the past six years. 

It is clear that the neo-conservative theory of American hegemony that captured the first administration of President George W. Bush is not the path to a democratic or a secure world. America cannot impose democracy at the point of a gun. As Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye has written, “The Iraq War discredited the idea of coercive democratization.”
America is still the dominant military power in the world today and has been since the end of the Cold War. But even the Bush administration seems to have gotten the message that traditional military power is no longer enough to achieve our foreign-policy goals. For centuries military might determined the outcome of most international disagreements. That is no longer the case. Tanks and planes and bombs and battalions have failed to produce victory in America’s two greatest conflicts of the past 50 years: Vietnam and Iraq. Military dominance won the Cold War, but it cannot prevail against asymmetrical insurgencies fueled by tradition, religion and a willingness to throw away one’s life for a higher calling. The message from Iraq it is that economic development, the rule of law, education and the infrastructure for people to lead healthy and productive lives must exist before democracy can take hold. Civic society, not infantry battalions, set people free.

There are encouraging signs that the neo-con influence on the Bush administration is giving way to a more holistic approach to foreign policy. The fact that senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats met face-to-face over the weekend was a symbolic breakthrough, no matter if anything of substance was accomplished. It sent a powerful message to the world that maybe, at long last, the Bush administration was beginning to step from behind the bully pulpit and listen to what others had to say.

If that is the case, Indonesians believe they can play an important role. To begin with Indonesia demonstrates that Islam and democracy are not incompatible. Indonesian democracy may not be the ideal that neo-con purists desire, but it is working. Yes, corruption is still rampant and abuses of rights are often ignored, but power passes peacefully from one administration to another. The economy is growing, incomes are rising and regional and ethnic conflicts are being settled. It is not American democracy, but it is not America.

Indonesia has assumed a seat on the United Nations Security Council through 2008. The nation is positioned to be an honest broker on security issues relating to Iran, Iraq, Sudan and North Korea. It is one of the few nations that enjoys good relations with both North and South Korea and could play a role in helping verify any non-proliferation deal to be made with the North Koreans.

Indonesians believe Asia is the future, and they intend to play a significant role in the rising power of the Pacific. The nation does not have the economic muscle of China or Japan, but it is a significant player nonetheless. The economy has been growing at over 5 percent a year in this decade and could do better with increased investment from the West. That would be a good bet for more than just economic reasons. A growing economy that spreads the wealth will do much to preserve a moderate Muslim government. That is good for the region, good for the world and something America has been unable to do elsewhere with all our military might.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.