WASHINGTON — Is the Clinton administration serious this time? Or is this yet another Washington version of an Indonesian shadow play?
Those are the questions that come to mind about President Clinton's Asia policy in the early days of his second term. For strange as it may sound, given the role Indonesian-linked money has played in the furor over Democratic Party fund-raising, Clinton is quietly laying the groundwork for what could be a new, tougher policy to combat Indonesia's repressive labor practices.
There is talk within the administration once again of clamping down on Indonesia's trade privileges in this country because of its persistent efforts to prevent free labor unions. High-level administration officials are being quietly dispatched to Indonesia to see how workers there are being treated. A delegation sent out by U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky is to land in Jakarta over the weekend, and John Shattuck, assistant secretary of State for human rights, will follow a couple of weeks later.
In a sense, this is where Clinton came in four years ago. Yogi Berra was no expert on Asia, but his immortal words describe well the president's policies toward the world's largest continent: It's deja vu all over again.
In 1993, the new Clinton administration was weighing the possibility of doing something about Indonesia's labor practices. It launched an investigation of whether Indonesia's trade benefits should be cut off because of its failure to abide by "international labor standards," as required by U.S. trade law.
That prospect was so unsettling to President Suharto and his government that they began making use of the web of the financial connections between Indonesian and Arkansas business interests to gain entree to the Clinton White House. In early 1994, the trade investigation was suspended, with administration officials maintaining Suharto's government was making enough progress to be freed from the threat of sanctions.
Now, as Congress prepares to investigate the administration's avid pursuit of Asian money in the 1996 campaign, the White House is looking once again at the Indonesian policies that helped get the whole affair started.
The crux of the issue is that the millions of Indonesian workers making shoes, clothes and other products sold in this country have no right to form independent unions. Indonesia recognizes only one official labor organization, which is government controlled.
The event that seems to have galvanized Clinton to take a new look at Indonesia is the ongoing trial in Jakarta of Muchtar Pakpahan, a young lawyer who founded the country's largest independent labor union, one that the government doesn't recognize.
Pakpahan, who has been arrested repeatedly over the past four years, is being tried for subversion, which carries the death penalty. The charges against him don't directly involve union activity but rather statements he is supposed to have made. He is accused, for instance, of questioning the role of the military in Indonesian politics. In Indonesia, you can be put on trial for saying such things.
The AFL-CIO and human rights groups also have been pressing the administration to reopen the investigation of Indonesia's labor practices. While Indonesian wages are somewhat better than they were, says Sidney Jones, an Indonesia expert for Human Rights Watch/Asia, "there is no progress whatsoever on freedom of association" for the nation's workers.
If you know the recent history in Indonesia, it is easy to be cynical about the administration's sudden flirtation with reopening an issue from which it backed away in the past. On their next sojourns across the Pacific, administration officials might carry along a thoughtful new book by William Greider, "One World Or Not," and read Chapter 17, which happens to be about labor in Indonesia.
"U.S. leaders periodically expressed their concern and threatened trade sanctions; the Indonesian generals responded with appeasing gestures," Greider writes. "American officials investigated the notorious restrictions on workers and set deadlines for reform; Suharto announced reforms and the deadlines passed. The pattern of evasion was so blatant, it was impossible to believe in the sincerity of either party."
It may well be that in the end, nothing will come of Clinton's current endeavors either. Maybe, after appeals from the United States, Suharto's government will release Pakpahan and make promises to change in the future, and the administration will back away again from doing anything serious.
Yet it's also possible Clinton may act differently toward Indonesia this time.
One reason is foreign policy. In Indonesia, Suharto's authoritarian regime now looks less stable than it did a couple of years ago. Remember that under similar circumstances even President Reagan, who took office proclaiming the virtues of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos and South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, eventually pressed these leaders to step aside and to open up their political systems.
The other factor is politics. With congressional investigations looming, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore may well be eager to demonstrate that their fund-raising in the last campaign won't affect policies in Asia.
It would indeed be ironic if, with the election behind him, the president forsakes his corporate and Indonesian supporters and takes the stand for workers' rights that his administration was thinking about when he first came to the White House.
Jim Mann's column appears here every other Wednesday.