If the people of Indonesia are busy pondering the question of what is going on in the mind of President Suharto, imagine how intense the guessing game must be in Washington. How the crisis plays out is not merely of immense importance to the United States' economic and strategic interests. The difference between peaceful reform and a violent clampdown in Jakarta also means the success or failure of a key test of American foreign policy. What is fascinating about Washington's response so far is not merely that the administration is following a 'wait and see' approach; what is also noteworthy is the US response is - publicly, at least - so low-key some critics believe it to be almost non-existent. Perhaps the fairest way to summarise the administration's thinking on this complicated and sensitive foreign policy issue is not 'do nothing' but rather 'less is more'. Or, as State Department spokesman James Rubin encapsulated it yesterday: 'All we're saying is that we want an Indonesian solution to this Indonesian political problem. We are not going to dictate a political fix for them.' The strongest remarks uttered by the administration have so far been firm but somewhat vague, calling on Jakarta to reform its discredited system of government and refrain from violence. While that is probably the most open sign of irritation Washington has shown during its cosy three-decade relationship with Mr Suharto, it falls short of supporting the Indonesians who are calling for the president's resignation. Washington has clearly made two crucial judgments: firstly, it is counter-productive to be seen trying to force Jakarta's leadership into decisions it may make on its own; and secondly, the situation is moving so quickly from day to day that America risks being caught out diplomatically if it tries to influence events. 'They are incredibly nervous about getting it wrong,' says Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch Asia. 'They can't define what they are doing without saying Suharto should step down, but they haven't done that. . . . And their problem is, if you don't have Suharto, then who?' The central figure shaping the US response is Stanley Roth, the assistant Secretary of State and an expert on the country since his formative years as a congressional aide. But it is only in the past two or three weeks that he has been able to get behind the wheel. From the time the economic crisis hit Asia last summer, US policy on Indonesia was to view it as a primarily financial issue - and thus driven by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. The continued dive of the rupiah and the stockmarket gave rise to the protests which turned the issue into a political one. The first sign that the State Department and White House were muscling in came two months ago, when former vice-president Walter Mondale was dispatched to Jakarta to try, with only mixed success, to persuade Mr Suharto to undertake the full economic reforms the IMF was requesting. And now that the mainstream foreign policy officials have taken the crisis back from the money men, it comes at a time when they have been distracted by other pressing issues - including the Indian nuclear tests, and preparations for President Bill Clinton's trip to China. The problem for Mr Roth is that, even if his softly-softly approach turns out to be a prudent one in the long run, he is left taking an incredible amount of heat in the interim. With the Indonesian authorities having shot six students to death last week, and shadows of Tiananmen Square hovering uncomfortably in the background, it is difficult for a US government to stay on the sidelines, even with a long-term Cold War ally like Indonesia. At a Senate hearing on Monday, senators pointed out Washington seemed far less reluctant in the past to influence the removal of leaders, such as Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. But if Washington seems less cynical about turning against a reliable old dictator in the case of Mr Suharto, it is not just because the US wields considerably less power in Indonesia than it did in its old colony; it is mainly because times have changed. Fifteen years ago, the major US concern was to prevent the spread of communism, but now its biggest headache is that the collapse of a major trading partner will cause a domino effect across the world's economies. Outside Congress, Mr Roth's tactics on Indonesia have received a warm response among the foreign policy pundits. 'The administration's [cautious] response is the right one. Indonesia's parliamentary procedures must be allowed to work, however slow that process might be,' says Georgetown University professor James Clad. Slow is not an option Washington prefers. President Suharto's promise to step down, however heartening, is also vague enough to allow the US administration no reason to relax. Even as it continues to play the waiting game, America should also let Jakarta know its patience is not inexhaustible.