The Middle East — Good News for a Change, out of Asia


Date: 01-31-2007

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HONOLULU (Jan. 31) -- Americans, accustomed to being in the center of diplomacy on the Middle East, might not be inclined to pay a lot of attention to a news item out of Jakarta, Indonesia following a January 31 meeting between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and visiting Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. They should, says Richard Baker, special assistant to the president of the East-West Center and a former U.S. diplomat who served in Jakarta.

At a joint news conference following their meeting, the two presidents announced a new initiative on the seething conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The leaders said they hoped to call together a group of “like-minded” Islamic countries. Baker says “they were clearly referring primarily to moderate Muslims.” He adds, “Their plan is to develop new approaches to these parallel crises, crises that have reached directly into the two countries in the form of terrorism.”

He says there are many reasons why this initiative should be welcomed, including by the United States. “Indonesia and Pakistan have unimpeachable credentials in the Islamic world, and both suffer from domestic threats from small but active groups of violent Islamist extremists.” Baker continues, “The two are, respectively, the most populous and second most populous Muslim-majority countries in the world. Pakistan is a front-line state in the struggle with the residual Taliban forces and their supporters along and on both sides of the long Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Indonesia is currently a member of the United Nations Security Council and is a troop contributor to the UN ‘UNIFIL’ peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.” Indonesia was one of the few Islamic countries acceptable to Israel following the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As part of Indonesia’s renewed activism on the international stage, Yudhoyono’s government has recently offered its services in a number of conflict situations, including the North Korean nuclear issue and the Hamas-Fatah conflict in Palestine. “This latest initiative,” Baker says, “fits that pattern.” But it is the first to be taken jointly with another major Islamic country.

Interestingly, although both leaders are Muslims, neither comes directly out of Islamic political circles -- both are former generals. However, both are clearly aligned with the moderate Islamic forces in their countries. Baker points out, “Further, both men are known to have positive relationships with the United States, but also to have differences with Washington over policy including in the Middle East and are not afraid to speak out independently on these subjects. “So,” he adds, “their voices have credibility in other Muslim capitals.”

“The voice of the moderate majority of Islamic countries has not been conspicuous in recent efforts to resolve the various conflicts in this region,” Baker points out, adding “The United States has urged friendly governments to play more active roles in peacemaking, but without conspicuous recent success – perhaps because the United States is now so widely viewed as part of the problem.” But he also notes that “There can be no question that Islamic countries, both in the immediate Middle East region and more broadly, have a major stake in the future of the Islamic world and its relations with other countries.”

However, Baker cautions, “It’s early days yet.”

The initiative as yet has no specific substance. The leaders offered no details at their press conference, and consultations will be required with other key governments, including Malaysia (currently chair of the “Organization of the Islamic Conference,” the international grouping of Islamic nations) and Saudi Arabia. Musharraf met with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdallah Badawi following his Jakarta visit, and Musharraf specifically referred to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as another Islamic leader who was being consulted on the proposal.

Baker acknowledges, “There are numerous obstacles and pitfalls in the road. The landscape of the Middle East is littered with well-intentioned peace proposals that went nowhere.” But, he concludes, “The fact that two prominent leaders of major Islamic nations have stepped forward to call for an independent (i.e., not U.S.-inspired) initiative to deal with the wide and still-spreading turbulence in their region has to be considered a promising development. And it should be welcomed as such by the United States and other interested Western governments.”

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Richard Baker is special assistant to the president of the East-West Center. He was formerly a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 20 years, including postings in Singapore, Indonesia, the Department of State, and as political section head at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra in 1984-87. Baker holds a MPA in international relations from Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

Richard Baker can be contacted at (808) 944-7371 or via email at BakerR@EastWestCenter.org

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