JAKARTA, Indonesia -- At the height of President Suharto's autocratic rule, then-U.S. Ambassador Paul D. Wolfowitz publicly offered advice in 1989 that could have landed domestic critics in prison, pointedly telling the dictator that his record of rapid economic growth was not enough.
"If greater openness is a key to economic success, I believe there is increasingly a need for openness in the political sphere as well," Wolfowitz said in May 1989 farewell remarks at Jakarta's American Cultural Center as he prepared to leave Indonesia after three years as ambassador.
This single, unexpected sentence stunned some members of Suharto's inner circle. Wolfowitz's colleagues and friends, both Indonesian and American, said the statement was in line with the U.S. envoy's quiet pursuit of political and economic reforms in Indonesia, and they say he will bring those same values to the World Bank if approved as its new president.
But he has been criticized by Indonesian human rights activists for remaining silent for too long as Suharto was repressing dissent and enforcing harsh military rule in rebellious regions of the country. And many of his admirers in Indonesia have expressed dismay at his later evolution into a chief architect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Wolfowitz's decision to speak of "openness" substantially advanced the pursuit of democratic reform, said David Merrill, who ran the embassy's U.S. Agency for International Development program. "It was not a very revolutionary word," said Merrill, now a retired ambassador. But at the time, "It had a huge impact."
Even Suharto acknowledged in a 1991 interview with Time magazine that Wolfowitz's remarks had "intensified and aggravated" the debate over openness in the country. Faced with popular protests, Suharto resigned in 1998 after 32 years in power.
Abdurrahman Wahid, who became president in 1999, was so taken by Wolfowitz's 1989 speech that he asked to be introduced. Wahid, a leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization and staunch proponent of political pluralism, said in an interview Friday that they became friends and he remains proud of that relationship today despite differences over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Wahid was impeached by his political rivals in 2001 but remains highly influential, especially among moderate Muslims.
Several Indonesian human rights advocates, however, say the speech attracted attention precisely because Wolfowitz had previously chosen not to publicly condemn widespread abuses by security forces, including torture and extrajudicial killings, and government restrictions on the media and free expression.
"This ambassador didn't speak out about human rights here. He was perceived by the public as being close to the Suharto government," said Abdul Hakim Garuda Nusantara, who headed Indonesia's legal aid foundation and now chairs the National Human Rights Commission.
Nusantara said Wolfowitz appeared to ignore abuses committed by Indonesian security forces, which were fighting separatist insurgencies in the provinces of Aceh and Papua. Nor did he raise public concerns about East Timor, which had been invaded by the Indonesian military a decade earlier. Wolfowitz also remained silent about the mounting corruption within Suharto's family and inner circle, Nusantara asserted.
"It's the duty of the ambassador from the United States to expose these concerns. He didn't say anything," he said.
Wolfowitz never visited Nusantara's offices, he said, though his organization had taken the lead in fighting for the release of political prisoners.
Human rights activists said, however, that the ambassador was close to Gen. Benny Moerdani, the country's hard-line military chief and defense minister in the late 1980s. One day after the famous speech, the Jakarta Post published a front-page photograph of Wolfowitz welcoming Moerdani at a farewell reception in the ambassador's residence.
Former diplomats who served with Wolfowitz in Jakarta explained that his charge was to carry out U.S. policy of supporting Indonesia, a Cold War ally and vast emerging market for U.S. products. But they stress he was also a quiet partisan for democratic reform, befriending Indonesia's struggling press, youth groups and intellectuals, while inviting political dissidents for embassy visits.
Wolfowitz was a highly visible emissary. He taught himself to speak and read the Indonesian language. He was not only a fixture on the Jakarta social circuit but also tramped through its villages and hiked its volcanoes. He won third prize in a cooking contest sponsored by the country's leading women's magazine, Femina, appearing in its glossy pages in an apron and explaining his secret for Madame Mao's chicken.
Long before the U.S. administration tried to improve its standing with the Muslim world, Wolfowitz made this a personal priority, his friends said. They said he sought to build relations and provide grants to Muslim groups, which served as a counterweight to Suharto's government.
When he was a criticized for being Jewish by a leading Indonesian Muslim figure, Lukman Harun, the ambassador paid him a visit during an open house. Obliged by tradition to honor his guest, Harun welcomed Wolfowitz and later became a trusted friend, according to Bambang Harymurti, editor of Tempo magazine.
Equally prominent was Wolfowitz's wife at the time, Clare, who was widely admired for speaking the Javanese language and mastering its traditional Serimpi dance.
Because Wolfowitz and his wife cut such popular figures, many Indonesian friends were surprised years later to learn that as U.S. deputy defense secretary he was the intellectual force behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq, roundly condemned in the world's largest Muslim country.
"I was a bit shocked when I realized he was a hawk in the Cabinet," said Emil Salim, the population and environment minister under Suharto. "I cannot visualize this because I knew him as a gentle fellow."
During Wolfowitz's tenure, AID officials helped draft a law that would have significantly weakened Suharto's position by freeing the central bank from his control and establishing it as an independent institution. These aid officials also proposed reforms for decentralizing government programs and revamping the finance ministry, which Suharto manipulated for the benefit of his own family. In each case, the initiatives were beaten back by Suharto's government though ultimately adopted after he was forced from power by mass demonstrations in 1998, according to former U.S. officials.
Former officials involved in running the AID program in the late 1980s said Wolfowitz took a keen personal interest in development, including health care, agriculture and private sector expansion.
Corruption within Suharto's inner circle was a particular concern. Wolfowitz canceled food assistance to the Indonesian government out of concern that Suharto's family, which had an ownership interest in the country's only flour mill, was indirectly benefiting, U.S. officials said.
The ambassador also endorsed an initiative by the embassy's political officers to complete a classified analysis for the State Department arguing that graft by the Suharto family had "exceeded the norms of Indonesian corruption," said Timothy Carney, former U.S. political counselor at the embassy.
And one day before he publicly took Suharto to task on political openness, Wolfowitz criticized the government for graft in a farewell speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Jakarta. "The cost of the high-cost economy remains too high," he said, using a euphemism for corruption. "For the private sector to flourish, special privilege must give way to equal opportunity and equal risk for all."
As ambassador, he also encouraged the AID program to extend assistance beyond the government to private organizations.
Yet Peter Gajewski, the program's senior economist, said the embassy continued to deal primarily with Suharto's administration and not support opposition groups. That sat well with Suharto insiders, such as Johannes Sumarlin, the government's chief planning minister and Wolfowitz's weekly tennis partner.
"I did not see Paul trying to really force or exercise pressure on Suharto to change his way to run the country politically. At that time, it was most acceptable to us," Sumarlin said. "Me, as a Suharto man, we liked to maintain our stability in running the country politically and economically."