The United States cannot afford further political mistakes in
Southeast Asia, or the damage to its credibility that has
accompanied such mistakes. Recent errors of leadership by the
Clinton Administration-and steps that Secretary Albright can take
to correct them-include:
Mistake #1: Allowing the coup in
The July coup, led by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen against
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is a serious failure
of leadership for the Clinton Administration in Southeast Asia.
Past failures by the United States to stand up to Hun Sen's
bullying, corruption, and drug trafficking only emboldened him to
reverse the results of 1993's United Nations-sponsored election
that he had lost to Ranariddh. That election resulted from a
three-year, $3 billion effort-25 percent of which was paid for by
U.S. taxpayers. Had the Administration stood up to Hun Sen when he
forced his way into the new government and instead supported
Cambodia's democratic leaders, like Sam Rainsy, the coup could have
been prevented. Under Hun Sen and a resurgent Khmer Rouge, Cambodia
could become another battleground, or another Burma-a narco-state
falling increasingly under Chinese influence.
Secretary Albright should declare Hun Sen's actions a "coup,"
which the Department of State has yet to do. She should
praise ASEAN's decision to delay Cambodia's admittance to its
ranks. She should urge ASEAN, Japan, and Australia to continue
denying recognition to Hun Sen's government. More important, she
should ask the foreign ministers from ASEAN, Japan, and Australia
to join the United States in suspending all economic aid to
Cambodia until Hun Sen commits to holding free and fair elections.
Albright's July 17 appointment of former U.S. Representative
Stephen Solarz (D-NY) as special envoy to Cambodia was a positive
step in helping recover from past Administration mistakes.
Mistake #2: Mismanagement leading
Indonesia to reduce its military relations with the United
On June 7, Indonesia suspended its participation in the
International Military Education and Training (IMET) program with
the United States as well as consideration of buying used U.S. F-16
fighters. Jakarta acted to head off attempts by Congress to deny
Indonesia both programs because of alleged human rights abuses.
Jakarta was frustrated that the Administration was unwilling to
defend its participation in these programs because of scandals
concerning Indonesian political donations to President Bill
Clinton. IMET would expose Indonesia's military officers to a U.S.
military that exemplifies civilian rule; the Indonesian military
will play a critical role in the government that succeeds President
Suharto. The acquisition of more F-16s, in addition to the 11
Indonesia already owns, would increase equipment compatibility with
U.S. forces, which is useful for conducting joint military
exercises and strengthening deterrence in Southeast Asia. Instead,
Jakarta now is shopping for Russian fighters.
Secretary Albright should stress that reducing military
cooperation with the United States will stem criticism from neither
the Administration nor Congress on Indonesia's human rights abuses.
She should assure Jakarta that the possible legal problems
for President Clinton stemming from political donations from his
Indonesian friends do not diminish Washington's desire to improve
U.S.-Indonesian strategic cooperation. She should stress that the
United States places great value on IMET training and arms
compatibility and ask Indonesia to reconsider its decisions.
Mistake #3: Placing an ineffective economic embargo on
In May 1996, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ken
Wiedemann noted that "unilateral sanctions would have limited
economic impact on the [Burma] regime." But on April 22, 1997, the
Clinton Administration unilaterally banned new U.S. investment in
Burma as a protest against its record of human rights abuses. This
action followed a 1996 law calling for such an embargo if
repression of democracy activists (like Aung San Suu Kyi)
continued. Wiedemann's admonition will hold true: The new
investment restriction is a unilateral move that is not likely to
affect Burma's military regime. In the meantime, China is building
its influence in Burma by becoming the regime's chief strategic
The Clinton Administration should reconsider its decision to
impose this embargo if it cannot get Japan, China, and ASEAN to
join the sanction. If this embargo is ineffective in achieving
human rights concessions, the United States should encourage
multilateral adoption of an investment code that requires investors
to give employees in Burma opportunities to work abroad and learn
more about democratic societies. Such a program could strengthen
support for democratic movements over the longer term.
Mistake #4: Allowing the military alliance with the
Philippines to languish
The Clinton Administration has failed to rebuild strategic
cooperation with Manila under the aegis of the 1952 U.S.-Philippine
Mutual Defense Treaty. This alliance has languished following the
departure of U.S. military forces from their bases in the
Philippines in 1992. Manila lacks a navy or air force to defend its
territory. Increased U.S.-Philippine military cooperation is
important in deterring China from militarily enforcing its claims
in the South China Sea, and also may lead to more base access
options for U.S. forces in times of crisis. The Clinton
Administration's weak response to China's 1995 occupation of a reef
near the Philippines undermined confidence in U.S. leadership in
that region. It did not counter the nationalists in Manila who
oppose a revived cooperation and who thus far have prevented the
completion of a Status of Forces Agreement. This agreement is
needed to settle the legal status and protections conferred to U.S.
forces operating in the Philippines.
Secretary Albright should convey to her Philippine counterpart
the desire of the United States to complete a Status of Forces
Agreement quickly and to rebuild a mutually beneficial military
cooperative relationship. To rally support in Manila, the
United States should help the Philippines' military modernization
program by offering low-cost terms to purchase used U.S. frigates
and F-18 or F-16 fighter aircraft.
During the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Malaysia, Secretary
Albright has an opportunity to correct recent U.S. policy mistakes
in Southeast Asia. It is critical that U.S. credibility is enhanced
because it will be needed to promote democracy, especially in
Cambodia. The credibility of the United States in Southeast Asia
flows from the strength of its regional military relationships, and
these relationships need urgent repair in both Indonesia and the
When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits Malaysia this
week to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN), she will bring along a U.S. regional policy in
disarray. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines, the
Clinton Administration made policy mistakes that have seriously
diminished the credibility of the United States in a region
critical to U.S. economic and strategic interests. A long,
expensive effort to promote democracy in Cambodia fell apart after
Hun Sen's coup two weeks ago, but if the Administration had stood
up to Hun Sen's bullying on previous occasions, this overthrow
could have been prevented. The U.S. military relationship with the
Philippines is in disrepair, and relations have been downgraded by
Indonesia at a time in which U.S. influence is needed to
counterbalance the rising power of China.