I don't generally write about US politics, but last night former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said during a Republican presidential debate that US engagement with Indonesia in the 1960s would be a good model for how the US should engage Pakistan today.
Since Indonesia is a great interest of mine (I reported from there for a decade), I pricked up my ears.
He and the other candidates were asked how they'd deal with Pakistan as president. It's a tough, important question. Pakistan is a nuclear power that the US sends billions of dollars in aid to, yet works against the American war effort in Afghanistan and appeared to harbor Osama bin Laden.
His answer? "We don’t want to just pull up stakes and get out of town after the enormous output we’ve just made for the region. Look at Indonesia in the ’60s. We helped them move toward modernity. We need to help bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th for that matter. Right now American approval in Pakistan is 12 percent. We’re not doing a very good job with that investment. We could do better by encouraging the opportunities of the West.”
In the first half of the 1960s Sukarno, Indonesia's flamboyant first president, was charting an independent, populist course that the US feared was placing the world's fourth largest country solidly in the Soviet Union's orbit. In 1964, the US cut off support for Indonesia, at a time of food-rationing and famine. That March, a furious Sukarno wagged his finger at US Ambassador Howard Jones at a public meeting and told him to "go to hell with your aid."
The increasingly erratic Sukarno was also dealing with extensive political problems at home, both from right-wing generals and a growing and militant communist party that was a sometime ally of his, but not a dependable one.
Half a million massacred
In 1965 Sukarno was deposed in coup, the exact circumstances of which are still hotly debated. Was it a communist coup defeated by General Suharto, the man who would go on to lead Indonesia for the next 32 years? Or was it a rightist putsch with the communists playing scapegoat? Either way, the aftermath was horrific, with roughly 500,000 Indonesians massacred in an anti-communist purge that persisted into 1966. Over the years there have been allegations that the US, through the CIA, aided and abetted Suharto's rise to power.
While that's a controversial claim, what's solid is what came next: the systematic destruction of Indonesia's nascent democratic institutions and political parties (which had already been taking a beating under Sukarno); state repression of opponents with torture, targeted killings, and long jail terms; and a military-backed dictatorship that persisted until a popular uprising in 1998 pushed Suharto, finally, from power. Since then, Indonesia has made steady, if imperfect, progress towards full civilian control of its military and democracy.
All along the US was a close friend and military backer of Suharto's "New Order," as he called it. US mining and oil firms received favored treatment in Indonesia, and when Suharto invaded and annexed tiny East Timor in 1975, the US looked the other way.
Down the decades the US also poured economic aid into Indonesia (as did the World Bank and various UN agencies) and on Suharto's watch, the economic circumstances of average Indonesians improved markedly. But it came at the cost of military dictatorship, something the US and many others were more than happy to live with in the context of the cold war and rivalry with both the Soviet Union and China.
Military's role in Pakistan
Today, Pakistan's civilian leaders are in a shaky position, with fears of another military coup rampant. Senior officers appear to conduct their own security policy, outside of any constraints placed by President Asif Ali Zardari, and those policies appear to include backing the Taliban and providing safe-haven to militants like the deceased Mr. Bin Laden. Just this week, Pakistani Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani lost his job over allegations that he was acting as a go-between for Mr. Zardari with the US on efforts to guard against Pakistan's military seizing power.
With Pakistan still struggling against military rule – and with support for civilian rule being a stated goal of successive US administrations – the American role in Indonesia in the 1960s might not be the best place to look for answers.