Colin Powell arrives this Monday in Southeast Asia, where he will visit several countries with large Muslim populations, including Malaysia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, America’s hand toward the Islamic world grows heavier. In Washington, discussion of a unilateral military strike against Iraq has sidestepped the “if” stage of debate and gone straight to “when.” George W. Bush has promoted Palestinian self-determination and democracy by calling for a separate state and open elections, but he has told the Palestinians to turn out Yasser Arafat, flouting the concept of democratic choice.
The Bush administration has rejected the idea of a reformist movement in Iran’s theocracy, choosing to back anti-government demonstrators whom it assumes are pro-democracy.
Whatever the arguments for these individual policies, their accumulated weight is worrisome. Even Southeast Asian Muslims, noted for their moderation and pragmatism, are beginning to fear that military or political war is Washington’s only response to problems in the Islamic world.
This muscularity is poorly timed for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia, where regimes face serious Islamic challenges. In Indonesia, perceived attacks on Islam by America exacerbate fighting in Aceh, where Jakarta is considering imposing a state of emergency, and in Ambon and other parts of the Moluccas.
In Buddhist-majority Thailand, the growing struggle with Muslim independence groups in the south has taken a violent turn.
In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is hoping to renew U.S. military assistance to fight domestic terrorism when joint exercises end on July 31, but she faces significant opposition.
In Malaysia, the recent by-elections in Malay Muslim constituencies show that large sections of the Malay community support religious legal initiatives that could undermine the rights of non-Malay minorities and raise ethnic tensions.
A threatening or swaggering U.S. approach to any of these problems would worsen them. Equally important, U.S. policy in other corners of the Islamic world could have a direct and inflammatory effect on these Southeast Asian struggles.
Powell should try to rebuild as much of America’s “soft power” as he can. It has taken a double hit in recent months—from U.S. threats of regime change in other countries by force or by pressure, and from the proliferating American corporate scandals. The latter are particularly disillusioning to Southeast Asia, which looked to the United States as a reform model after the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. To reclaim American soft power, Powell will have to explore the increasing number of shared problems and the need for joint approaches to them. These include fighting terrorism without destroying civil liberties, the need to strengthen accountability and the imperative of fostering mutual economic development.
Powell should seek the views of his Southeast Asian counterparts on U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran and other key Islamic countries. He should carry those views back to Washington. If America acts to force additional regime change in the Muslim world, it will need all the understanding it can muster.