Wake Up Washington! Indonesia's Problem Is Suharto

Why does political Washington continue to treat the crisis in Indonesia as though it were "merely" an economic crisis - rather than dealing with the full-blown crisis of political governance in that troubled nation?

After Walter Mondale went to Jakarta as President Clinton's special emissary early this month, he seemed to be reporting back to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin much more than to the president. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wasn't in the picture.

And while Mr. Mondale was still in Jakarta, did his talks focus on the deep-seated problems of authoritarianism and cronyism that continue to choke all hopes of effective Indonesian decisionmaking? Did he warn President Suharto that few people inside or outside Indonesia would be taken in by a vote in Suharto's puppet parliament that on March 10 gave Suharto his seventh five-year term in office? Or did he really, as press accounts tell it, talk mainly about the details of fiscal retrenchment?

Yes, Indonesia's economic problems are severe. But what stands in the way of their resolution is not lack of capital, and not yet a world depression. It is lack of effective decisionmaking in Jakarta.

Indonesia, after all, is not the only Asian nation suffering from the current downturn. The problems started in Thailand and have swept through other East Asian nations. But nowhere else except in Indonesia has the political will to solve problems been so totally stymied by the country's internal political rot. And Indonesia is big: Asian statesmen are rightly fearful of the consequences if this 200-million-person nation implodes. With its location astride key shipping lanes, its vulnerable minority of ethnic Chinese, and its status as the world's largest Muslim nation, an Indonesian collapse could spark political and military unrest throughout the continent.

So far, if there has been any American political approach to the crisis at all, it seems to have been based on the assumption that dealing with Suharto is preferable to dealing with the uncertainties of political change in Indonesia. Hence, the notable silence in Washington on the "legitimacy" of proceedings in Jakarta's tragically unrepresentative parliament. Hence, the fact that all official American pronouncements on the crisis seem studiously to avoid any mention of its political dimension.

The Economist magazine had five words to say to such an ostrich-like approach: Remember the Shah of Iran! Remember, too, this warning implied, the damaging consequences for US interests of Washington's too-lengthy reliance on that other dictator.

There is another model of an American president freeing himself from political entanglement with a long-time ally whose continuation in power seemed clearly to jeopardize both his people's and Washington's interests. The time was February 1986. The President was Ronald Reagan. The ally was Filipino President Marcos. And the presidential envoy in that case was Sen. Richard G. Lugar - who succeeded in persuading Mr. Marcos that stepping aside was the wise thing to do.

Perhaps the Philippines case was easier to deal with. The country had just had a broadly representative election, which went against Marcos, but which he looked set to steal. In today's Indonesia - another part of Suharto's legacy - there are no respectable representative institutions, and no clearly recognizable political successor standing in the wings. But the very least Washington should do is to send the Indonesian dictator two clear messages:

1. Given the unrepresentative nature of the March 10 vote, Washington will deal with him only as the interim president of Indonesia.

2. He will get no further American support for the international financial bailout unless he implements credible reforms at the political as well as the economic level. Such reforms should guarantee basic freedoms, establish representative bodies at all levels of society, and include a full Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor.

Hard for Washington and the rest of the international community to implement? Yes. Risky? Yes. But that is precisely why such a plan needs the highest-level political involvement of the president and secretary of state, if it is to have a hope of success. What is certain, meanwhile, is that the consequences of continued political "ostrichism" in Washington can only be far worse.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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