Doing the Right Thing by Not Meddling in Indonesia’s Civil Unrest

March 29, 2000 • Commentary

Human rights activists might describe the restrained U.S. policy regarding disorder in Indonesia as another example of the West’s double standards. One set of principles seems to apply to the breakdown of European nation‐​states, but different principles seem to guide policy toward Third World ethnic and religious conflicts.

In the former Yugoslavia, a U.S.-led international force is trying to end hostilities between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and to secure a fragile peace in Bosnia. Yet the United States is treating with benign neglect the outbreak of ethnic and religious violence in the Indonesian archipelago, where the fighting between separatist guerrillas and government forces in Aceh province and clashes between Moslems and Christians in the Maluku islands have resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and combatants.

Under pressure at home and abroad to “do something” to deal with the civil war that followed the Yugoslavian breakup, Washington intervened militarily. But the United States has resisted similar appeals from Australia and New Zealand to contain the secessionist pressures and religious warfare in Indonesia.

The criticism by those who have applauded the U.S. intervention in the Balkans and who had hoped that the East Timor crisis would create the conditions for “doing a Kosovo” in Southeast Asia is misplaced. It is the benign neglect approach that Washington adopted in its dealing with the internal conflicts in Indonesia that should serve a model for U.S. policy toward similar crises elsewhere.

Indeed, what a difference not “doing a Kosovo” in East Timor has made. The surprisingly low‐​key U.S. involvement in resolving the East Timor crisis averted a Kosovo‐​like intervention in Indonesia and reduced the danger that the United States would become the focus of anti‐​Western sentiment in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Contrast that with what happened as a result of U.S. involvement in Kosovo; bombing and years of economic sanctions against Belgrade have inflamed anti‐​American attitudes among the Serbs and their supporters throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe and has helped Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic win domestic support for his hard‐​line nationalism.

America’s constructive disengagement from the internal problems in Indonesia, coupled with continuing support for integrating the country into the global economy, has encouraged a process of political and economic change in Indonesia. That surge of domestic reform pressures led to the election of the pragmatic President Abdurraham Wahid who has taken steps to constrain the military and has expressed support for granting political and economic autonomy to the rebellious provinces.

More important, American military and diplomatic intervention in the former Yugoslavia created incentives for the internationalization of a civil war. The U.S. decision to intervene led NATO into its first “hot war” — a war that risked a military confrontation with Russia and endangered the U.S. relationship with China. In contrast, Washington’s decision to stay out of the civil unrest in the Indonesian archipelago ensured that the conflicts in Aceh and Maluku, as well as in other provinces, would remain localized.

Had Washington pursued an activist policy in dealing with the possible fragmentation of Indonesia and tried “doing a Kosovo” in East Timor, it could have further damaged relations with China; after all, Indonesia is in China’s strategic back yard and has a large and vulnerable Chinese minority. Beijing would not take kindly to attempts by the United States to establish a Kosovo‐​style protectorate in Southeast Asia. An upsurge in Sino‐​American animosity, in turn, would threaten East Asian stability and endanger the region’s financial recovery.

Instead, by resisting the urge to “do something” in Indonesia, and by lowering the expectations that Washington will use its military power to resolve every regional conflict, the United States has forced local players, including Australia, the Philippines and Thailand to take charge of the peacekeeping operations in East Timor and to commence serious discussions about the need for forming regional security structures.

Refraining from meddling in far‐​flung internal conflicts serves U.S. interests by eliminating the military and financial costs that result from direct involvement where no vital U.S. strategic concerns exist. Nonintervention is also morally right, despite the sermons of the human rights buffs and their cheerleaders in the media and Congress. A policy of U.S. restraint reduces the chances for expanding the scope of a local conflict and creates incentives for the regional players to end it.

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