Obama’s Diplomacy in Indonesia Trip

Published on March 17, 2010

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Malaysian Mirror – March 18, 2010
President Barack Obama’s visit to the most populous Muslim nation is delayed three days because of the unfinished task on healthcare reform in the U.S. congress. The original plan which was scheduled from March 18-24 included the first lady and daughters, but the new schedule from March 21-26 will be without family members.
The trip will be the president’s first visit to Asia this year, and the second since he took office in January 2009. The trip also includes stops in Guam and Australia. Cancellation of the original schedule, which was planned to coincide with the first daughters’ spring break from school, is an indication of how significant the healthcare legislation is to Obama’s presidency.
Passage of the healthcare bill and signing it into law will be a defining moment for the first African-American president; it will be a major accomplishment for both the president and the democratic-led congress. In fact, it will be a historic moment for the United States of America.
Though the president has shown commitment to diplomacy in international affairs, they often are overweighed by domestic priorities such as healthcare and fixing the ailing economy, with the continued high unemployment rate. Nevertheless, the U.S. presidents traditionally had handled multiple tasks simultaneously.
Since his election campaigns, Obama has been determined to change the U.S. image around the world, especially with the unfriendly relations with many Muslim nations. He also offered engagement with “rogue regimes” which were largely isolated by his predecessor, president George Bush.
During this trip, Obama is expected to launch a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia, mark the 70th anniversary of U.S.-Australia relations and discuss Afghanistan and nuclear nonproliferation issues with Australian leaders. He plans to meet with military personnel in the U.S. territory of Guam.
Traveling to Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation, is special to Obama. It is not only personal but also indicative of the president’s vision for a new way forward with the Muslim world. The president is expected to use the visit to reiterate the message he delivered to the Muslim world from Cairo last year.
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s, visit to Indonesia in February 2009 was largely viewed as laying the groundwork for Obama’s visit to the country. Indonesia was the only Southeast Asian country that the secretary of state visited during her first overseas trip.
The president lived and attended schools in Indonesia from age 6 to 10 (1967 to 1971) when his American mother remarried to an Indonesian. When he was inaugurated, Obama’s former classmates gathered at his old school to celebrate the 44th president, whom they called "Barry."
Regional security is expected to be an important part of the discussion. The visit comes as Indonesian police continues to hunt for suspected militants in Aceh province. Jakarta also sees the visit as a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between the Western world and the Muslim world.
Another important discussion is expected to be on education; strengthening Indonesian universities. President Obama and his counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is likely to discuss sending more Indonesian students to study in the United States, and encouraging Americans to pursue Indonesian studies.
Though many of the president’s diplomatic decisions, if not all, may have been covertly supported or okayed by the first lady, she has thus far not come out in public to do so. Michelle Obama seems to take interest in less-confrontational issues such as education and economy. The first lady plans to make her solo overseas visit to Mexico in April where she is likely to focus on education and economic development.
Laura Bush, Michelle’s predecessor, was outspoken in condemning human rights violations and spoke out for promoting women’s rights. Laura openly criticized human rights abuses in countries such as Burma and Iran, and invited democracy activists to the White House as a gesture of her support to their movements. For that matter, Laura Bush is missed by many democracy atavists.
Indonesia being a leading and influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, Washington sees it as a potential important strategic partner in the region. In November of last year, the ASEAN leaders and president Obama shared the same table discussing a wide range of issues.
With the latest political development surrounding the announcement of controversial election laws in the military-ruled Burma (which is ASEAN member), president Obama is likely to seek  president Susilo Bambang’s support and cooperation in Washington’s engagement with the junta.
Somewhat similar to Burma, Indonesia has the experience of transitioning itself from more than three decades (1967 to 1998 under the then President Suharto) of military rule to become arguably the most democratic country in the entire Southeast Asia.
Given the absence of unanimity among the five U.N. Security Council members and the inability to forge a coordinated international strategy, the chances of the international community helping establish a democratic society in Burma is slim, at least for now.
Though I do not see what the U.S. can do much before the proposed 2010 election is over, I still believe that engaging the Burmese military junta was and is the right approach, with sanctions in place.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America).

Note: Obama has postponed his trip until June. The announcement came after this article was published.