The lessons from Bali

As the smoke finally clears from the brutal Bali blast, we owe it to the many lives shattered to reflect on how to deal with the issues raised by this atrocity.  In doing so, there is no question that the international community must work together to seek out and punish those who are guilty, but we must go beyond vengeance.


In considering our response, we must draw on the lessons that the terror attack a year ago provided.  September 11 gave us an opportunity which we did not avail.  The world was united in recognition that the attack could not go unanswered, but any international unity was squandered for many reasons. Our one-sided answer of categorical military force made international support for our action wane in light of the attacks. If nothing else, Bali should give us the impetus to make up for these missed opportunities. 


Over the last decade, the US has come to grips with the reality that a new military paradigm is needed.  No longer does the major threat facing us come from another state superpower; in fact, it comes from nebulous groups who operate in the shadows and have no compunction about striking at innocents.  It has taken our military some time to acknowledge that indiscriminate bombing is not the solution.  The White House needs to make a similar paradigm shift in our foreign policy.  If this does not occur, Bali will also become a missed opportunity.


Although the islands surrounding Bali constitute a great percentage of Muslim inhabitants, it is interesting to note that Southeast Asia has been a relatively calm area in terms of globalpolitik.  Indeed the Asian continent is home to more than 800 million of the world’s Muslims, a fact which is not high in our national consciousness, but which we can no longer afford to ignore.  The United States needs to let go of its almost obsessive preoccupation with the Middle East, which represents only about 18% of global Muslims, and look at the cultural uniqueness and rapidly growing political power of the Muslim majority in South and South-East Asia.  While much of this population falls within the moderate camp, there is growing discontent, which must be addressed. 


How do we do this?  The answers are complex, but the most important dimensions of our response need to be a willingness to engage these populations, to foster and support the forces of moderation and an acceptance that we will be judged by our actions, not only by our words.  More broadly, our policies must recognize the growing importance of this region, which is not only the world’s most populous, but is also home to China, the only other superpower likely to emerge in the coming decades.


In order to nurture a positive relationship with this forgotten region of the world, it is imperative that we not only look at the cause of resentment of Western foreign policy, but also aspire to understand the context of the social and cultural paradigms that these countries hold so dear. Unfortunately, it is not as clear as a “with us or against us” mentality, but it would involve an honest dialogue about how the West went wrong and how the East went wrong. There is a good basis for such an approach, as it taps into the values of the majority of the populations of most of humanity.  It is no coincidence that moderate attitudes have prevailed so far, reflecting broadly held belief systems, just as it is no coincidence that the extreme forces in those societies are finding a focus for their evil by pointing to the inconsistencies in our policies and practices.


During the Cold War, America and the West asked two key questions about Communism: was it reformable and could we live with it?  Without equating Islam with Communism, it is pertinent to ask the similar questions about some parts of the Muslim world.  One answer might be that while détente with Islam might be hard, and occasionally painful, the alternative could be much worse.

The writer is the former United States Ambassador to the of and other Pacific Island nations (1999-2001). He is the first Muslim American ever to serve as a US Chief of Mission.