HONOLULU — The United States continues to make the war against terrorism its top priority. To keep the world focused on the battle, it is focusing on Southeast Asia, opening what some call “a second front” in the region. This agenda makes sense in Washington, but its single-minded focus could undermine long-term U.S. interests in the region. Counterterrorism policy must be part of a broader strategy of engagement with Southeast Asia; it appears as though the war against terrorism is becoming a substitute for that broader approach.
U.S. President George W. Bush has promised to eliminate “every terrorist group with global reach.” After crushing the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. turned its attention to Southeast Asia, a region that the State Department has identified as the site of “potential al-Qaeda hubs.” U.S. military advisers have been dispatched to the Philippines to help that country combat the Abu Sayyaf group. Concerns were heightened earlier this year when the Singapore government revealed that it had detained 13 members of Jemaah Islamiah, a clandestine network with cells in Indonesia and Malaysia, but it warned that other members had escaped capture.
Southeast Asian governments, like governments elsewhere, have expressed support for the war against terrorism. But spend some time in the region and it quickly becomes apparent that this support is broad, not deep. Last week in Kuala Lumpur, the divisions were glaring at the Asia Pacific Roundtable, or APR, the annual “track-two” meeting of security professionals.
There was no agreement on who is a terrorist, what is a terrorist attack and, to no one’s surprise, the causes of terrorism. As one regional security analyst noted, “there is still debate regarding the presence and influence of transnational terrorist networks in the region.”
Many Southeast Asians, including those who consider themselves friends of the U.S., do not feel threatened by terrorism. This group worries that terrorist cells in their countries will become targets of U.S. retaliation. That, not terrorism per se, is the real danger for them.
Among Muslims, there is real anger. U.S. assurances that the war is against terror and not against Islam ring hollow. At the APR, participants discussed “Islam and the West: A New Cold War?” Ominously, many of the Muslim speakers — Western educated and “moderate” — seemed to think that a clash of civilizations is inevitable — unless the U.S. changes its policies.
In his keynote address to the APR, Dato Seri Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and home affairs minister, drove the point home: “The anger and the grievances that breed movements like the al-Qaeda have grown in the aftermath of Sept. 11. They have grown not because we failed to address the root causes but because some of our actions in the aftermath are aggravating the situation rather than alleviating it.”
Badawi was explicit: “The issue that most angers Arabs and Muslims is the Palestinian issue. It is the perceived injustices committed by Israel and the foreign political and military support that enables it to commit them.”
Even moderates argue that the U.S. must get Israel to halt its offensives against the Palestinian Authority and push Tel Aviv to endorse the Saudi Arabian peace initiative if it is to win the support of “the street” in Southeast Asia. For many, the U.S. is no longer viewed as a reliable interlocutor.
But if the U.S. should act in the Middle East, Southeast Asians are equally adamant about what the U.S. should not do in their region. First, despite concern that militants are hijacking Islam in the region — and intellectuals have called on political and religious leaders to denounce violence and terrorism — there is virtual unanimity that the U.S. should not openly support specific moderate Muslim leaders. Western attempts to endorse or push moderates will be “the kiss of death” to their political aspirations.
Second, they argue that the U.S. should not expand its military presence in the region. There is a widespread belief that the U.S. wants to do just that and establish a permanent force in the region. That would be consistent with U.S. policy in Central Asia, where the U.S. is thought to be establishing a permanent presence in an attempt to extend its influence. A heavy-handed U.S. effort to win a military role in combating terrorism in Indonesia or Malaysia would be an affront to those governments and would be destabilizing, given popular sentiment in both those countries.
The Philippines is a different case. The agreement with the Philippine government requires the 160 members of the U.S. Special Forces to leave the country after June 30, following six months of training and advising troops. The U.S. is considering an extension, if requested by the government in Manila. The U.S. should not say “no” to an ally in need, but it must be extremely careful about the terms of any future deployment.
For example, Southeast Asians warned that any attempt by the U.S. to extend the antiterrorism fight in the Philippines beyond the Abu Sayyaf to other Muslim organizations, such as the Moro National Liberation Front, could anger the regional governments that helped broker the previous peace deal between Manila and the MNLF.
Finally, the U.S. must not focus exclusively on terrorism. Southeast Asians voiced concern that Washington’s single-minded focus on terrorism is distracting the U.S. from larger strategic issues in the region. Now, the chief worry among Southeast Asians is the rising influence of China. They look to the U.S. to engage the region on a variety of levels to check that trend; currently, however, the military effort takes precedence over all others and appears to prevent the broad-based engagement policy that is needed.
These perceptions may be mistaken, but they are real nevertheless. They make it clear that the U.S. may be winning the war against terrorism on the ground, but it is losing the battle for public opinion. The U.S. must ramp up its public diplomacy in Southeast Asia. It has to counter the widespread belief that the U.S. is unilateralist and indifferent — if not outright hostile — to Islam and the Muslim world. That effort will have to be subtle; the U.S. cannot publicly support regional leaders without appearing to compromise them. This is a job for nongovernmental organizations and other capacity-building groups, such as the Asia Foundation or Pacific Forum CSIS.
At the same time, the U.S. government should be actively engaged with the track-two process. It needs to show influential policymakers and opinion leaders that it is prepared to engage Southeast Asia across a spectrum of issues. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s attendance at the recent de facto defense ministers meeting in Singapore was important, but it is only a start.
Ranking State Department personnel need to be involved to counter the view that the U.S. is not interested in the region or that its focus is only military. That, along with an economic strategy that addresses core Southeast Asian concerns, will be the foundation of a successful counterterrorism policy in the region.
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