Obama's 'Smart Power' Play
As he heads to Southeast Asia, the president has a chance to re-engage with the region’s Muslims, strike a blow against radical Islam—and separate himself from Bush.
President Obama is on his way today to the only part of the world where vast numbers of Muslims actually want Americans to join them in the struggle against the forces behind terrorism.
Unlike their co-religionists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, the quarter-billion Muslims of Southeast Asia—as many as in the entire Middle East—are appealing for Americans to work alongside them to drain the swamps of poverty and ignorance that give rise to the soldiers of jihad. Their only qualification is that these Americans come in sandals and sneakers, not combat boots.
This is what they say when you meet them: Help us with education—science and mathematics—with agriculture, sanitation, roads, and drinking water, in developing small businesses and manufacturing. In short, they want us to help them develop and to improve their fledgling attempts at building democracies. This is the very definition of “Smart Power,” the policy approach to which Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have given voice since the Bush administration swaggered out of town.
Americans should have learned by now that killing Muslims will not result in victory but will serve only to embitter even more Muslims. The alternative is to help them.
For the United States to recapture the admiration and respect it has lost among the people of the ummah—the global Islamic community—the place to begin anew is Southeast Asia, a region feeling the stresses of rising Islamic fundamentalism but increasingly democratic and generally at peace.
On Sunday, Obama is to meet privately in Singapore with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, home to 220 million Muslims—the largest Islamic population in the world. Indonesia’s strident fundamentalists, some 4 million strong, are challenging the government to promote Sharia, or Islamic religious law.
Obama will meet as well with the leaders of the Philippines, where well over 120,000 Muslims and Christians have slaughtered each other since 1970; of Thailand, where more than 3,500 Muslims and Buddhists have killed each other in the last four years; and of Malaysia, whose Chinese and Indian minorities are increasingly fearful as Islamic fundamentalists there, too, seek the supremacy of Sharia.
Obama’s host in ethnic Chinese-dominated Singapore—the region’s greatest economic success story—President Lee Hsien Loong, told me recently of his fixation with “sitting on a global fault line” between Indonesia and Malaysia and his worries about the emerging religious fundamentalism among the city-state’s own Malay-Muslim minority. In recent extended travel throughout the region, I found new signs of fundamentalism everywhere.
Nearly 40 years ago, Obama lived as a child in Jakarta with his American mother and his Indonesian stepfather. Back then, at the height of the Vietnam War, the Muslims of Southeast Asia were renowned for their moderation. Women may have covered their hair with a light scarf, but almost none veiled their faces or hid themselves beneath the burqa. It was the rare man who grew a beard, and many drank and dined with non-Muslim friends.
• Alex Massie: Europe's Continent Envy• Big Fat Story: The Toughest Issues Facing Obama in AsiaAll that and more is shifting as Obama makes his first official trip to the region as president of the United States—an achievement by a man of color with a recognizably Muslim middle name that thrills Southeast Asians. Moderation is suspect, as growing numbers of Muslims turn to the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam, to reaffirm their identity. It’s a trend that is worrisome to the majority, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Their leaders, who are reluctant to confront the forces of fundamentalism for fear of stirring a hornet’s nest of the poorest and least educated, undoubtedly will press Obama to re-engage with a part of the world the United States has largely ignored since its defeat in Vietnam. The president would be wise to see the good sense in this. Americans should have learned by now that killing Muslims will not result in victory but will serve only to embitter even more Muslims. The alternative is to help them.
By calling on Smart Power, we might break the all-too-familiar cycle of how we interact with the rest of the world: We ignore a country or region until it blows up in our faces; then, we “discover” it and overnight become clumsily consumed; and then, after excessive cost and bloodshed, we relapse into self-imposed ignorance.
A classic example was our myopic military support of the mujahideen as they fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and ’89. Our policymakers failed to contemplate the blowback from installing an extremist Islamic organization in power in such a fragile state. A decade later, the mujahideen morphed into the Taliban and the United States took the place of the Red Army.
It was much the same in Vietnam. Remember the “domino theory?” If we “allowed” the South to fall to the communist North, we were told again and again by a succession of American presidents, the neighboring nations of Southeast Asia would follow suit. One after another, they would tumble before the Red Menace. All the East would turn red. It would not be long before we would be fighting them on the beaches of San Diego.
Americans failed to understand—or chose to ignore—that the Vietnamese communists also were Vietnamese nationalists. We did not recognize their goal to unite their divided country. We did not fathom that Vietnam’s bitter differences with communist China were centuries long and deep. We did not accept that China’s differences with communist Russia were just as significant.
Thus, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we easily switched our preoccupation from godless communists to God-obsessed Islamists. Few Americans paused long enough to consider how little we knew about the people and the cultures of the awaiting new quagmire.
This routine is futile. The time for engagement with the people of Southeast Asia is now, in advance of a crisis, but none too soon. As long as open-ended struggle with radical Islam remains a reality for the United States, Southeast Asia will be critical. We make a grave error if we ignore the region any longer.
We need to learn and to understand not simply the politics and economics of its governments but the very human feelings and motivations, the passions and hatreds, of its people. We must get to know their cultures and help them to better understand ours; to accept what we share as well as what we disagree on; to see each other not as threats but as friends.
This may be the best chance, even the last, the United States will have to come to terms with the world’s Muslims.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lewis M. Simons is co-author with Sen. Christopher S. Bond of The Next Front: Southeast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam. His latest article for Foreign Affairs is " The Forgotten Front: Winning the Hearts and Minds in Southeast Asia."