Helping Indonesia helps US

The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln steamed away from the waters off Indonesia last week, ending a chapter in America's aid mission to that tsunami- battered country. Most of the 15,000 US servicemen who originally took part in the relief operation - flying hundreds of helicopter missions to deliver food, water, and other aid to the victims - have been withdrawn, but about 5,000 remain on ships in the area.

Why should Americans, and the West in general, continue to care about Indonesia, that mystical, faraway and far-flung tropical island nation strung across 3,000 miles between the Pacific and Indian oceans?

Well, first, because it is right. At the epicenter of the earthquake that sent a giant tsunami across Asia, Indonesia was the hardest hit, and has the greatest need for humanitarian aid. Few can remain unmoved by the toll of death and destruction: the tsunami has taken at least 110,000 lives there, leaving families devastated and homeless and tens of thousands of children orphaned.

It is a country of talented, hardy people who can usually manage a smile in the face of the adversity threaded through their history. Colonized by the Dutch, then occupied by the Japanese in World War II, Indonesia has been overtaken by one disaster after another since it gained independence in 1945. Its first president, Sukarno, although initially hailed as a national hero, engineered a confrontation with Britain, flirted with the communists, squandered the country's resources, and failed dismally to lift the Indonesian masses from poverty.

He was finally deposed after an ugly, communist-inspired coup attempt that wiped out the Indonesian Army's top leaders. A surviving general, Suharto, rallied the Army and eliminated the plotters in a bloody purge that killed tens of thousands. He succeeded to the presidency but proved a disappointingly corrupt leader who did little to rescue his people from their economic hardship.

Today, the seeds of democracy are flourishing. In their first direct presidential election, Indonesians last year installed Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general who has spent substantial time in the US. While Indonesia practices a much more moderate form of Islam than some Middle Eastern countries, radical Islamist elements are at work and have carried out a number of terrorist attacks.

Thus the question is whether Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world - but non-Arabic - can be a successful counter to the extremism of Al Qaeda and other jihadists.

Beyond their humanitarian instincts, American taxpayers have well-founded political reasons to support continuing aid to a country that may play a significant role in the war against terrorism. In the wake of the tsunami, humanitarian aid without strings is perhaps the best kind of public diplomacy - doing good deeds and letting people make of it what they will.

Indonesians have, in fact, reacted warmly to the US effort. Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said as the USS Abraham Lincoln departed: "It is with deep appreciation that I say to all of you, thank you for a great job, well done."

But President Yudhoyono's government has also been sensitive to a foreign military presence on its soil, particularly in Aceh province, where the Indonesian military has been waging a long campaign against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The US has responded intelligently, saying, "It's their country," and that the government has "every right to decide" how long US troops are needed. Post-tsunami attempts to end the confrontation between the GAM and the Indonesian government have so far failed. The situation may have been complicated by the movement of some Islamic extremist elements into the stricken province.

The US wants good relations with Indonesia, where it hopes democracy will thrive and terrorism will be kept at bay. Because of charges that the Indonesian military had been guilty of human rights abuses in East Timor, the US in 1999 severed an arrangement that had brought Indonesian military officers to the US for training. President Yudhoyono is himself a graduate of that program, having had six educational stints in the US, five of them military. The Bush administration would like to rebuild those ties.

If that is to be done, it must be within a framework that recognizes Indonesia's strong mood of nationalism on the one hand, and skepticism on the part of some members of the US Congress about the military's human rights record on the other.

Both sides, of course, have an overriding interest in Indonesia's continuing ability to resist Islamic radicalization.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his coverage of Indonesia.

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