Indonesia as a Test Case


Mar 19, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 19, 2003.

Fallout from Iraq

Regime change in Iraq will have political consequences throughout the Muslim world. It will reverberate among the traditionally moderate and tolerant Muslims of Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, a nation with more Muslims than any other country, which is undergoing a fragile transition to democracy.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia is firmly committed to upholding the country's secular political values and institutions, but she is vulnerable to attack by her Muslim political adversaries.

They are maneuvering to position themselves for the 2004 presidential election. Some of her opponents are likely to use the war in Iraq to mobilize their supporters and attack the government by exploiting its alignment with the United States in the war on terrorism—a commitment reinforced by the terrorist bombings in Bali.

The impact of developments in Iraq on the position of moderate leaders such as Megawati will turn on whether the war is short, successful, and surgical; or whether it is prolonged and messy, with significant civilian casualties and widespread destruction.

If the war turns out to be short, there will be criticism by religious and political leaders, and the usual anti-American demonstrations, but no significant long-term damage to the U.S.-Indonesia relations or to the process of democratic consolidation in Indonesia.

But if the war goes wrong, opinion in could turn more strongly against America. The extremists' message that the war in Iraq is part of a religious conflict between Islam and the West will fall on more receptive ears.

The strength of Islamic political factions will continue to grow and the Jakarta government will find it more difficult to maintain its cooperation with the United States, in fighting terrorism and in other areas.

Megawati is on the same tightrope that she walked during the U.S.-led campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. She is cooperating with America in the war on terrorism, but has taken steps to insulate her government from the fallout of a war in Iraq by adopting a public position against war in Iraq without United Nations sanction.

Two sectors will be critical to Megawati's efforts to maintain a steady course: the military and the majority of moderate Muslims.

The military has a strong secular and nationalist tradition. It can be counted upon to oppose a bid for power by Islamic political forces. But a deteriorating public order situation might tempt it to step back into political spheres that it recently vacated.

Moderate Muslims in are the strongest barrier to radical and anti-democratic tendencies, as well as the most effective potential U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.

How America goes about establishing a democratic foundation in Iraq will have a profound impact on public opinion in and throughout the Muslim world. Workable steps to establish democracy in Iraq will strengthen the U.S. credibility. If the United States can make a credible case that it is on the side of Muslim democrats, it will have gone a long way toward putting ties with the Islamic world on a more enduring basis.

The writer is a senior policy analyst and specialist at the RAND Corporation.

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