- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2000

It is impossible to overestimate the sheer magnitude and complexity of Indonesia's economic and political problems. These include the rise of radical Islam, nationalism, and the old habits of cronyism that hinder serious steps toward democracy. As radical Islamists, nationalists, and friends of the former dictator Suharto work to further undermine stability in Indonesia, they have drawn attention away from themselves by accusing the United States, or more specifically, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert S. Gelbard, of inciting the growing unrest in the world's largest Muslim nation. Unfortunately, it appears that some in the U.S. media, as well as parts of the administration, are falling into this trap.

Targeted by noisy, threatening daily demonstrations by students and Muslim groups accusing the United States of siding with Israel against the Palestinians, the U.S. embassy in Jakarta was forced to close for two weeks. The State Department cited "credible information" about a threat to the compound as the reason for the closure and issued strong warnings to Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Indonesia. While it has re-opened, the embassy issued a statement saying it still believed "a specific threat" may be directed at its facilities. The ambassador who left Jakarta last week following threats on his life is still in the United States officially, to fulfill a longstanding family commitment.

Unable or unwilling to control the mobs outside the embassy, some Indonesian government officials and the local media launched a virulent attack against the United States, charging that the American ambassador's meddling in Indonesia's domestic affairs is the cause for the disturbance. Though the State Department issued a statement that there is "a rise in anti-American rhetoric by some national political leaders and extremist groups," and that there had also been a number of "acts of intimidation and violence," directed at U.S. companies and diplomatic facilities, the statement failed to condemn the attacks on its envoy. It also failed to identify the radical Muslim organizations that lead the unrest.

It is not surprising that Mr. Gelbard's public demands that Indonesia control the militias and the military, stop human rights violations and bring the violators to justice, introduce the rule of law, fight corruption and honor its contractual commitments do not sit well with many Indonesians. However, the reaction from old Indonesia hands, American businesses, the media and the administration is a sobering and disturbing phenomenon.

Mr. Gelbard is one of the few practitioners of public diplomacy, airing contentious issues that governments would prefer to discuss behind close doors. In many cases, his style, which has been a departure from that of his predecessors in the countries he has served, enabled him to achieve results that others could not.

Though he has helped the Indonesian government achieve whatever progress has been achieved thus far, Mr. Gelbard's efforts to mobilize the Indonesian government, the lending agencies and the business community to reform Indonesia's corrupt political and economic system, to end human right abuses and control the military, has encountered objections at every turn.

Considering Indonesia's enormous significance to the stability of the region, it is difficult to explain why the international community has been so slow in demanding reform.

On Oct. 18, the Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) conference approved the $4.8 billion in loans Indonesia had requested to plug part of its $7.1 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year. Interestingly, the fact that $22 billion that is 45.6 percent of Indonesia's national budget went missing over the fiscal year 1999/2000 according to the Supreme Audit Agency report last July, this was not addressed by the CGI or, for that matter, by anybody else. According to Indonesia's finance minster, as of last month the government debt this year is 99 percent of the GDP. Before the financial crisis forced Indonesia to turn to the International Monetary Fund in 1997, its debt-to-GDP ratio averaged 23 percent, according to a World Bank report. By contrast, countries joining the European Union single currency in 1999 were required to cut their public debt ratio to below 60 percent. According to these figures, it seems that the Suharto regime was good for Indonesian's economy, corruption and all. Perhaps this explains the obstacles to reform in Indonesia, despite the fact that former President Suharto's corruption led to his demise.

Political stability and political will are the prerequisites for reform. Indonesia's new leadership must project an image to the people that it is clean and that corruption is no longer tolerated if it is to be successful in establishing a new sort of regime, based on the rule of law. America's support of an open and democratic "clean" regime should have bipartisan support. Regardless of the administration in power, it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to uphold the values at risk in Indonesia that Mr. Gelbard fights to protect.

Rachel Ehrenfeld is the director of the New York-based Center for the Study for Corruption and the Rule of Law.

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