If Asia Could Vote …

RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE
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Many Muslims dislike America’s hard power in its war on terror

AMERICAN tanks in Baghdad and US planes on bombing missions in Afghanistan have left President George W. Bush with fewer friends in Indonesia.

In neighbouring Malaysia, he is seen in some circles as a bully, with former premier Mahathir Mohammad urging Muslims in the United States to vote him out of office.

America’s hard power, epitomised in Mr Bush’s global war on terrorism, has left a bitter aftertaste in the two predominantly Muslim countries seemingly in favour now of Mr Kerry.

Mr Kerry is not expected to bring any substantive change to US foreign policy. But he will bring a change in style.

Mr Jusuf Wanandi, of the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times: ‘Kerry comes across as being flexible and less arrogant.’

Three years after Sept 11, Indonesians are growing to hate America.

According to a report commissioned by the Bush administration last year, only 15 per cent of Indonesians viewed the US favourably, compared with 61 per cent in 2002.

For many here, the ‘war on terror’ has turned into a war on Muslims, with Washington blurring the line between Islam and extremism.

Sociologist Imam Prasojo of the University of Indonesia explained: ‘We don’t want to be trapped in this dichotomy that Bush seems to have created – the West versus Muslims.

‘The majority of Indonesians don’t like Saddam Hussein or any other terrorists for that matter, but what we question is the arrogance in which the US carries out it foreign policy.’

Central to such attitudes is US policy in the Middle East viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most Indonesians believe that Washington is not even-handed in dealing with the Palestinian problem.

Tun Dr Mahathir blamed Mr Bush for the increased sufferings of Muslims.

While his words echo the feelings of many outside the US, it is also ironic. Four years ago, while he was still prime minister, he urged Americans to support Mr Bush against Mr Al Gore, the man he accused of supporting former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

Dr Abdul Razak Baginda, of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, noted: ‘Malaysians are all obviously supporting Kerry, but it is a twist of irony that four years ago we all wanted Bush to win.’

Irrespective of who comes into power, the process behind US foreign policy will remain the same, going through major bodies like Congress which traditionally has had a big say in policies.

A senior aide to new President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted: ‘Presidents can come and go but Congress is there to keep watch on Indonesia.’

One glaring example of its influence is the so-called Leahy Agreement. Congress passed it in 1999 following the Timor Leste imbroglio with the aim of sharply reducing military cooperation with Indonesia.

Assistance is suspended until certain conditions are met, including bringing to justice members of the armed forces and militia groups suspected of rights abuses.

While restoration of military equipment assistance depends on accountability over rights abuses, funds for military education hinged on another case – the killing of two Americans in Papua province two years ago.

Congress will have the final say in lifting the ban.

Some believe that with the Democrats in power, more liberals in Capitol Hill will push for democracy and human rights that have turned out to be periodic irritants in the bilateral relationship.

But many others argue otherwise.

A new administration under Mr Kerry will dovetail with the new political milieu Indonesia that is moving towards greater democracy.

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