Is Southeast Asia the Second Front?

Courtesy Reuters


In late January 2002, the Bush administration sent 660 U.S. troops to the Philippines, deploying them in the south of the archipelago to assist in hostage rescue and counterinsurgency operations. The move was widely heralded as the opening of a second front in Washington's war on terrorism. And that perception was understandable: after all, the deployment followed hard on the heels of the arrests of dozens of alleged al Qaeda operatives in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. With the Taliban in Afghanistan having been routed, Southeast Asia -- home to radical Islamist groups such as the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), Abu Sayyaf, and the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) -- was starting to seem like the new home base for the terrorist movement that had brought down the World Trade Center.

Whether or not this is actually the case, September 11 and its aftermath have already transformed U.S. relations with many Southeast Asian nations. America's previously chilly interactions with Muslim-majority Malaysia have thawed considerably; Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has won plaudits from Washington for supporting the U.S. war on terrorism. Indonesia, meanwhile, has come in for heavy American criticism for failing to be similarly cooperative and crack down on its own extremists (although the United States has softened its tone on this issue in recent months). At the same time, many U.S. policymakers are now looking to overturn congressional restrictions on aid to Indonesia's military, once spurned for its human rights abuses, as a way to bolster the state's capacity to fight terrorism. And little more than a decade after the Philippine Senate refused to renew leases on U.S. bases in that country -- prompting Washington to slash its aid to Manila -- the American military is now returning in force. Indeed, the Philippines has not occupied such a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

The intensifying U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia reflects the somewhat hysterical tone adopted by many

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