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U.S. Legislators Target Asia

Activist Senators Fill Policy Vacuum Left By Focus on Terrorism


December 23, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Much of the attention on the likely direction of U.S. foreign policy in President George W. Bush's second term has focused on Condoleezza Rice's appointment as secretary of state. But with the White House focused on fighting terrorism, a handful of legislators also are playing a prominent role in U.S. policy, particularly toward some Southeast Asian countries.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Indonesia. Mr. Bush's administration had hoped this year to restore military-to-military ties as a gesture to newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, according to U.S. officials. But restrictions in a recently passed foreign-aid bill inserted by several senators including Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican whip and powerful chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, forced the administration to back down.

"Congress has definitely impeded the desire of the Bush administration to resume normal military-to-military relations with Indonesia after Sept. 11," says Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service, Congress's research arm.

The two senators want Jakarta to hold its military officers responsible for the violence in East Timor in 1999 and to help find the killers of two American school teachers gunned down in the province of Papua in 2002. Separately, however, Congress did approve $1 million for the Indonesian Navy to help it protect the country's sea lanes against terrorists and pirates -- provided it isn't found to have been involved in human-rights violations.

Congressional activism in foreign policy isn't new, of course. Three decades ago, Democratic members of Congress tied up a Republican administration trying to fight a war in Vietnam; more recently Republican lawmakers sought to rein in the administration of President Bill Clinton on China and Taiwan policy. But today, it often is Republican legislators tripping up a Republican administration.

In addition, says an aide to a Democratic senator, the Bush administration's focus on fighting terrorism has created a vacuum when it comes to countries not on the priority list of the White House and the Pentagon -- and activist senators are filling the gap.

Even democratic Thailand, named a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally during Mr. Bush's visit to Bangkok last year for its support of the war in Iraq, has come under congressional scrutiny. Frustrated by Bangkok's refusal to cooperate with the U.S. in isolating Myanmar's military regime, Mr. McConnell fired a warning shot by including $1 million in the recently passed foreign-aid bill to promote democracy and press freedom in Thailand. And administration officials have long complained that the senator's aid restrictions in Cambodia make it difficult for Washington to cooperate with Phnom Penh on counterterrorism activities and fighting narcotics trade.

Myanmar has long been a favorite congressional target as well. When the Bush administration tried in late 2002 to certify that Rangoon had taken some steps requested by the U.S. to rein in opium production, Mr. McConnell and other legislators protested and forced the State Department to back down. "The administration decided we weren't willing to take the heat, so we caved," says a former U.S. official who worked on Asia policy at the time.

One area where Republican lawmakers have become more subdued after a fellow Republican won the White House in 2001 is on policy toward China and Taiwan.

During Mr. Clinton's presidency, some congressional Republicans criticized his administration as cozying up to China and not doing enough to support Taiwan. Today, many in Congress have "come to appreciate our need for closer cooperation with China" to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, says Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She adds that many people in Congress have moderated their tone as they are concerned that independence activists in Taipei are "dragging us into a war in the Taiwan Strait."