The war in Southeast Asia

October 19, 2003

ANTI-SEMITISM is nothing new for Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, Asia's longest serving leader. So his ridiculous remarks last week -- Jews "rule the world by proxy" and Muslims must fight them with brains and brawn -- were shocking but hardly surprising.

This sort of nonsense would not be worthy of a response were it not for Mr. Mahathir's venue (the Organization of the Islamic Conference, 57 heads of state meeting for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks on America) and his timing (on the eve of President Bush's trip to Asia).

Moreover, given that the Malaysian leader has long been the supposed face of moderate Islam in Southeast Asia, his stance must be taken seriously as an indicator of the difficulties the United States faces and some of the bedfellows it must uncomfortably embrace in the war on terrorism in that part of the world.

The United States encounters tough issues all across Asia, many having little to do with terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists -- most notably the North Korean nuclear threat, and trade and currency battles with China and Japan. The heart of Mr. Bush's weeklong, six-nation trip will be the 21-nation meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.

But the war on terror, not economics, is grabbing center stage on the presidential dash through the region that began Friday in Japan. The trip itself is riven with security concerns, limiting Mr. Bush to only eight hours in the Philippines and just three hours on the Indonesian island of Bali, where Islamic terrorists set off a bomb last year, killing 202 tourists and bystanders.

Indonesia has sentenced three terrorists to death in connection with that bombing and arrested dozens. On this trip, Mr. Bush is expected to deepen the U.S. partnership with the world's most populous Islamic nation in fighting terror by renewing military ties with the Indonesian army, ties cut in 1999 because of its violence in East Timor.

The United States can claim some other recent successes in Southeast Asia. In August, Thai officials arrested a terrorist known as Hambali, believed the key link between al-Qaida and the group behind the Bali bombing, Jemaah Islamiyah. In the Philippines last Sunday, authorities killed its leading operative there. In Malaysia, police recently have shut down a JI recruiting center. In all, an estimated 200 JI members have been arrested across Southeast Asia.

Mr. Bush's trip is intended to continue this cooperation, in part by reinforcing the forces of moderate, tolerant Islam in southeast Asia. By any measure -- but particularly that one -- Mr. Mahathir's comments are a dangerous disservice.

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