Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Our Man in Medan


Past and present diplomats and USIA officials lament that the U.S. doesn’t present a more open, friendly face to the world, and that U.S. diplomats hole up in embassy compounds that are invariably described as “fortress-like.” I have never understood this, given the United States’ experience with low-security or unfortified outposts in countries with weak or absent central governments: hostage diplomats (Tehran ’79), dead marines (Beirut ’82), and dead Africans and American officials (Dar es Salaam, Nairobi ’98).

Even I was encouraged, though, by last week’s “Hi! My Name’s Paul. I’ll Be Your U.S. Diplomat Today.” In it, Jane Perlez does for the front-line diplomat what Robert Kaplan is doing for the special forces with Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. She shows a model for a more distributed form of American diplomacy that values interaction with the host country—including people the U.S. government would rather ignore—above all:

Here in Medan, [Indonesia,] a boisterous metropolis of more than two million, [American consul Paul S.] Berg, 52, covers a province that bursts with oil, natural gas, timber and palm oil, and is home to rare tigers, rhinoceroses and orangutans as well as 45 million people. His modest Dutch colonial-style house is both home and office, where jazz on the CD player adds to the informal ambience, and meetings with visitors are often held at the dining room table. A Vietnamese cook, known simply as Mr. Hoa, whom Mr. Berg met during his posting in Hanoi, eases social occasions with a continuous stream of fragrant food.

Mr. Berg's job is not unlike that of any other American diplomat. He tries to make friends for the United States in a vital corner of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, and seeks to protect American commercial and strategic interests. In these environs, those include the operations of three major American energy companies: Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. He also keeps an eye on the $400 million that the United States is contributing for the rebuilding of Aceh, which was hit so hard by the tsunami 13 months ago.

Mr. Berg was on the front lines when the tsunami struck; for a while, he was the front line. Medan is two and a half hours by road to the border of Aceh and a one-hour flight to Banda Aceh, its capital, where most of the victims died. For the first week of the disaster, when the central government was reluctant to allow foreign aid into Aceh directly, Mr. Berg worked with the more amenable local governor to route aid through Medan.

America's image in Indonesia has taken a battering from what many here regard as a heavy hand in the antiterrorism effort. Indonesians, who used to find it easy to get visas to the United States, now find it difficult, sometimes impossible.

Mr. Berg's post does not issue visas, but he tries to make sure, he said, that those who deserve visas get them. He has gone out of his way to favor members of the Justice Party for Prosperity, an increasingly popular political party with a strict interpretation of Islam and a no-nonsense approach to corruption, for State Department-sponsored visits to the United States. It was essential, he said, for America to know Indonesia's future leaders, and for them to understand America, even when the two sides may disagree.

This new diplomatic vision has lost some luster since “Hi! My Name’s Paul ...” ran in the Times last week, what with the Muslim world boiling at Scandinavia and now Europe generally over a cartoon depicting Muhammad. Mr. Berg’s efforts are a credit to himself and the State Department and a boon to U.S. interests in Indonesia, but I can’t help but worry about this diplomat in a way that I don’t about those in countries where protests stop with banners, placards and slogans, rather than firebombs that could easily destroy a modest, Dutch colonial-style house.

Postscript: This morning I read that an Iranian newspaper wants to have a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon. Let it. It should also have a contest for the most disparaging cartoons about Jesus, Buddha and any other sacred cows it can find. The satirists will find, to their dismay, that not so much as a rock will sail toward their embassies in any Western country.

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