Jackson Diehl has an interesting column about how Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, “one of the foremost advocates of liberal democracy in Muslim countries,” has tended to embrace populist and somewhat demagogic rhetoric about Israel recently. If you’re anything like me and don’t follow Malaysian politics closely, it’s worth a read. But I thought his concluding interpretation was somewhat odd:
But Anwar’s story can also be read as a warning. His transition from pro-American democrat to anti-Israeli zealot is sobering — and it is on the verge of becoming a trend.
As best I can tell from Diehl’s column, Anwar hasn’t stopped being “pro-American” or a democrat, so it’s difficult to see what the nature of the “transition” is. Indeed, if I’m understanding Diehl correctly what he’s saying about Anwar (and also about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) is that he’s heated up his rhetoric on Israel precisely because as a democrat seeking political reform in Malaysia under difficult circumstances he needs to be responsive to public opinion.
In terms of “pro-American,” it’s always difficult to know what people mean by this term. Clearly, though, Malaysia is very far away from Israel and not the kind of country that’s engaged in global power projection. I would think that we would therefore judge the pro-Americanness or not of a Malaysian politician primarily in terms of his attitude toward regional issues in Southeast Asia. Perhaps a “pro-American” Malaysian leader is one who wishes the United States to play a robust security role in the region in order to counterbalance China. Presumably there are some specific issues in the area that we care about. But certainly it would be odd to make Israel the top agenda item during a discussion with Malaysian officials (one striking thing about being in China during the Gaza flotilla raid is that nobody there cared at all) or the main criterion by which we judge a politician.