Like any elected leader, President Bush learned a lesson from his slow reaction to hurricane Katrina. In Indonesia, a disaster-prone nation that's only had a directly elected president since 2004, the learning curve has been as steep as a tall volcano.
After a giant tsunami hit Indonesia less than two years ago, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was criticized for a cautious response. On Saturday, a 6.3 earthquake struck near the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta and the president quickly moved his office there to supervise relief operations. He slept in a tent with quake survivors and admitted a "lack of coordination" in aid distribution, even though aid workers praise the government's response.
Mr. Yudhoyono's fast, hands-on work might have gotten lost in media coverage of a disaster that's killed more than 4,000, left 20,000 injured, and displaced more than 200,000. But it's worth noting that Indonesia's long-time dictator, Suharto, who was forced out of power by street protests in 1998, rarely, if ever, reacted to disasters in such a direct way. (Just in the past 17 months alone, Indonesia has had four disastrous earthquakes.) Suharto was aloof and worked in the shadows, like many unelected leaders.
The return of democracy to Southeast Asia's giant hasn't been easy, but under Yudhoyono, a former general, a mood of reform and responsiveness has helped bolster this archipelago nation of 220 million people and 17,000 islands.
The president's new propensity for readiness to disasters was evident recently as his government positioned stockpiles near Mount Merapi to prepare for a possible explosion of the volcano. He's also dealt reasonably well with outbreaks of the bird flu, in tracking down Muslim terrorists, and in reaching a peace with militant separatists in Sumatra's Aceh province.
And although Suharto achieved much in reducing poverty, as some dictators do, Yudhoyono has tried to tackle an endemic culture of corruption and nepotism left behind. That's been essential for Indonesia to lure more foreign investors who might otherwise put their money in China.
Yudhoyono's anticorruption campaign could be hindered, though, if the government decides not to prosecute Suharto for alleged misdeeds during his long rule. Indonesia needs to create a culture of political accountability. And Yudhoyono has not done enough to punish soldiers who went on a killing spree in East Timor after it achieved independence from Jakarta in 1999.
His boldest steps have been on the economy. Last October, he took political heat by deeply cutting subsidies on fuel. That raised prices dramatically, but he coupled the move with temporary aid for the 1 in 4 Indonesians who live in poverty. And he has helped slash government debt even though it brought higher joblessness. He's getting high marks from foreign economists, although his domestic popularity is slipping.
Governing such a sprawling and politically volatile nation will take the kind of humble teachability that Yudhoyono showed after the tsunami. The potential for social unrest is high in Indonesia, as are the number of natural disasters, but democracy has a way of lessening the effects if leaders can learn from them.