The Magazine

Premature Engagement

We should be wary of embracing Indonesia's military before it reforms.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By ELLEN BORK
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BUSH ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS WANT TO upgrade ties with Indonesia's military. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Congress that the Indonesian military is cooperating in an investigation of the 2002 murders of two Americans and an Indonesian in Papua. This would clear the way to resume funding for a program called International Military Education Training (IMET), which was limited throughout the 1990s because of Indonesia's human rights violations, most recently following the 2002 murders (in which the Indonesian military may have been implicated).

Before renewing U.S.-Indonesian military cooperation, Congress will want to consider the history of the troubled relationship and ask whether America's association with an unreformed military in Indonesia will help or hurt democratic reform and civilian control there.

IMET funding was first cut off by Congress in response to the 1991 massacre of protesters in Indonesian-occupied East Timor. Despite this and other atrocities, officials of both Republican and Democratic administrations have consistently pushed for closer ties with the Indonesian military. Visiting Indonesia in the wake of the tsunami, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta) implied that the current restriction is a bad idea: "Cutting off contact with Indonesian officers only makes the problem much worse."

In fact, some contact with the Indonesian military has been ongoing. Indonesian officers participate in counterterrorism fellowships at the National Defense University and in the U.S. Army's Theater Security Cooperation Program. Training in topics such as human rights and resource management is still available to Indonesian officers. Nonlethal military equipment for humanitarian purposes--like relief work after the tsunami--is also already available to Indonesia.

If full IMET is restored, other programs will likely follow, such as the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), which was halted by the Clinton administration after revelations that the Pentagon used it to circumvent the congressional ban on IMET funding. In reporting her 2003 book The Mission, the Washington Post's Dana Priest found that 41 training exercises had been held with the Indonesian military between 1991 and 1998.

The emergence of Southeast Asia as an important front in the war on al Qaeda makes the closest possible relations with Indonesia's military more attractive to policymakers, who argue that engagement with unsavory military organizations can foster greater respect for human rights as well as valuable relationships.

But the evidence is not clear. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general who won democratic election to the presidency in September, is cited by Wolfowitz as a distinguished graduate of IMET. However, in 1999, according to Priest, "U.S. officials were chagrined to learn that five of the 15 Indonesian military officers named by the country's human rights commission as allegedly involved in 'crimes against humanity' in East Timor were former IMET students."

As for closer relationships, as Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of Pacific forces, told Priest, "It is fairly rare that the personal relations made through an IMET course can come into play in resolving a future crisis." He also acknowledged that neither he nor his subordinates used their contacts to reach out to Indonesian military officers during the escalating militia violence in East Timor in 1999. To the contrary, the emphasis on good relations with the Indonesian military contributed to the U.S. decision to continue training operations with an elite special operations force even after officials concluded it was implicated in the kidnapping and torture of student activists during the fall of the Suharto regime.

Today Indonesia is a democracy. While it has exceeded expectations in some areas, military reform is not one of them. The State Department human rights report for 2003 refers to murder, rape, and torture by security forces and notes the promotion of retired and active military officers with records of serious abuses. Jakarta has held no members of the armed forces accountable for abuses in the 1999 violence in East Timor. As recently as last fall, the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta expressed regret that "we don't have the material with which to seriously go to Congress" to make the case for closer ties with Indonesia's military.

The tsunami and the widely admired response of the U.S. military have apparently changed the administration's position. But before any steps are taken, the administration should provide an accounting of past programs and their effectiveness in promoting reform, and outline a strategy that integrates military cooperation into a plan for advancing democracy and human rights in Indonesia.