Leading Article: A silly intervention that shores up an unwanted regime

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The Independent Culture
WITH ONE ill-judged speech, blatantly tailored to presidential politics at home, Al Gore may have achieved a seemingly impossible feat: that of strengthening the position of Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia's autocratic and repressive Prime Minister. Only those who remain besotted by "Asian values", despite the economic crisis that has devastated the region, can find much to admire in the high-handed, xenophobic fashion in which Mr Mahathir runs his country - least of all in the disgraceful treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, his rival and former deputy prime minister who is now on trial on charges of corruption and sodomy. No one would quarrel with Mr Gore's praise for "the brave people of Malaysia" and his goal of strengthening the country's reform movement. The question is how to go about it.

First and least important, the Vice President's remarks were discourteous in the extreme. It is one thing to speak out during a bilateral visit. Instead Mr Gore has disrupted a regional summit about economic co-operation among countries of the Pacific rim, of which Malaysia was the host. There are many other ways a President or Vice President could have signalled his disapproval, for example. Washington could have declined to attend the summit. Alternatively, as President Clinton planned until the Iraqi crisis prevented him from travelling to Kuala Lumpur, he could have attended but refused to hold bilateral talks with Mr Mahathir. Or, thirdly, he could have conveyed his views forthrightly in private discussions and made a show of meeting with leaders of the reform movement. In other words the US could have behaved as it did with the old Soviet Union, a regime far more objectionable than the current government of Malaysia.

But Mr Gore has chosen to go public. Lamely, US officials say that Bill Clinton would have said exactly the same thing had he been there. Maybe. One may only note that the President has been nowhere near so blunt in China, compared to which Malaysia is almost a model democracy. Alas Malaysia, unlike China, is a of a size to be safely picked upon.

So what now? One can but hope that the reformers are energised, and that a humiliated Mr Mahathir sees the folly of his ways, pulls his riot police off the streets and lets democracy work its course. More likely however, influential Malaysians who have little sympathy with their leader will this time feel impelled to side with him against so crude an American intrusion in their affairs. On the streets, meanwhile, tensions may be further inflamed, only increasing the risk of bloody confrontation. And not only in Malaysia. Events in Kuala Lumpur will nowhere be watched more closely than in Indonesia, where dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators have died in recent disturbances. More of the same and, as this paper reported yesterday from Jakarta, the Indonesian military might see a perfect pretext to seize power. Is that what Mr Gore wants?

And what of the harm this public relations disaster has done to the prospects of greater economic co-operation among the Apec nations, the original object of the exercise? All that the Vice President may have succeeded in strengthening on the Western side of the Pacific is resentment of American arrogance, of that unquestioning conviction that the American way is best.

However, at home such jingoism goes down a treat, and Mr Gore's speech was plainly intended for domestic consumption. His eyes are fastened on the White House in 2000, and his exhortations will provide splendid soundbites for TV spots during the New Hampshire primary, 15 months hence. Alas, they are unlikely to advance a rather more important cause, the development of democracy in Malaysia.