America’s Soft Reply to the Bali Bombing

As terrorist attacks often do, the bombing in Bali this weekend has shattered assumptions and illusions—both in Indonesia and the US.

On the Indonesian side, the illusion of immunity has been the first casualty. The cycle of violence has widened to include a tourist haven where several of the country’s religious groups have hitherto lived in relative harmony. The wall between local conflict and foreign extremism is crumbling, and terrorism has burrowed deeper into the Indonesian political fabric: an attack in Bali was an assault on President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s political heartland.

The bomb should not have come as a surprise, since Indonesia, with its complex political dynamics and fractured internal security, was the soft spot for extremism in south-east Asia. Washington had been warning of terrorist cells in Indonesia long before Jakarta acknowledged them.

The pressure on Indonesia to move against the threats within its territory has increased exponentially, and it will be difficult for Jakarta to deflect these international demands. Moreover, the scale of the attack and its economic impact give Ms Megawati a stronger domestic mandate to pursue terrorists. It will probably unify the broad swathe of moderate Indonesian Muslims, lowering the risk of a political backlash against any crackdown.

But the blast, the seventh in the region in recent weeks, also undermines some US assumptions. The first is that south-east Asia’s moderate Muslims are a bulwark in the war against terrorism. For centuries, religious communities in the region—Muslim, Budhist, Hindu and Confucian—have largely accommodated each other because no single group has been able to establish dominance. As a result, the great majority of Muslims are inclined towards modernisation.

But US engagement with this moderate force has flagged in recent years, and since September 11 the sole focus has been on identifying and apprehending extremists. Partly as a result, extremist voices have started to drown out moderate ones. A number of social initiatives could help immediately. They should include exchange programmes between American and south-east Asian Muslims; support for moderate Islamic education; and assistance to help moderate Muslim social scientists and educators in the region. Some should be conducted through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to underscore the regional approach to the war on terrorism.

The US must also look inward at the dangerous disconnects in its foreign policy. The bombing of Afghanistan last year exacerbated anti-American tensions among south-east Asian Muslims, but the link between the September 11 attack and that war tempered resentment. Most Muslims in the region see no such extenuating circumstance in the build-up to war in Iraq.

South-east Asian leaders visiting Washington in recent weeks have privately warned that a unilateral strike against Baghdad would not only undercut support for the US in the region, but could even radicalise elements of the moderate Muslim community. Before the administration moves further towards a MacArthur-style occupation of a post-war Iraq, it should assess the damage that a heavy hand in a Muslim country could do to the war on terrorism.

The US debate on Iraq has so far been oddly hermetic; at most, it has considered the effect of war on the Middle East. A realistic look is also needed at the impact of such action in regions that have so far been taken for granted. In seeking to transform an enemy into a friend, the US risks turning its existing friends into antagonists.