Feature

Grading the President: A View From Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia should be one of the great successes of U.S. foreign policy. It is a rare part of the world where globalization, liberalization, and democratization largely have taken root, even after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Plurality is also a fact of life amidst the region’s dizzying patchwork of peoples, faiths, and cultures. Furthermore, ...

Southeast Asia should be one of the great successes of U.S. foreign policy. It is a rare part of the world where globalization, liberalization, and democratization largely have taken root, even after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Plurality is also a fact of life amidst the region’s dizzying patchwork of peoples, faiths, and cultures.

Furthermore, U.S. corporations have helped propel the region’s growth and prosperity. With well over $120 billion in annual two-way trade between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States, Southeast Asians (unlike Latin Americans or Middle Easterners) have tended to view U.S. power — both economic and political — as a relatively benign and positive force, especially in light of China’s growing commercial and strategic clout in the region.

However, in the last two years, U.S. standing has plummeted as President George W. Bush’s circle of neoconservative advisors has consolidated its control of U.S. foreign policy. The legitimacy and credibility of much that the United States represents — including human rights, freedom of the press, and religious tolerance — have been badly damaged by the way in which the war on terrorism has been conducted.

Southeast Asia’s 200 million-strong Muslims aren’t the only critics of Bush, as fear and anxiety have supplanted respect and admiration for the United States throughout the region. "Americans have so much power, they think they can do everything by themselves," frets Pairat Pongpanich, foreign editor of the Thai-language daily Matichon. "They aren’t concerned with the impact of their decisions on other nations. Nowadays we tend to look at them partly in fear."

Southeast Asians have placed a great deal of trust in multilateral institutions. As Vincent Lim, an analyst with the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies argues, "Southeast Asians regard groupings such as asean as an important means of managing and even constraining larger powers." Consequently, Bush’s unilateralism, not to mention his barely concealed contempt for the United Nations, has come as a severe shock. The administration’s inept diplomacy has appalled commentators such as the former Indonesian presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who says Bush has "single-handedly transformed the United States from being the object of global sympathy into a propagator of worldwide conflict."

Resentment of the United States is profound and deepening, but Bush’s divisive rhetoric hasn’t sparked a wave of mass anti-American hysteria. Even in Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad’s Malaysia, there is a realization that Bush and his cabal of advisors are a terrible aberration in U.S. history. "We can distinguish between the President and his policies on the one hand, which we oppose, and the American people on the other — many of whom are themselves anti-war," explains Mustapha Ali, a Malaysian parliamentarian from the opposition Islamic Party.

Bush’s black-and-white view of the world has produced clarity for some. But in a multilayered and diverse region such as Southeast Asia, the starkness of his message has become a deeply destructive force, undermining decades of patient and hard-won American diplomacy.

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