Indonesia's Obama, Washington's Indonesia By Donald K Emmerson
JAKARTA - "When will he come?" Again and again in this city I have been asked
when US President Barack Hussein will visit Indonesia. I cannot remember a
time, since my first trip here in 1967, when Indonesians have looked forward
more eagerly to hosting an American president.
Hillary Clinton's visit in February not only stoked local hopes of welcoming
her boss. It was a big success in its own right. Never before had an American
secretary of state traveled to Jakarta so soon after taking office. Long
accustomed to being overlooked by Washington, Indonesians were flattered.
Clinton voiced admiration for Indonesia's ability to combine Islam
with democracy and modernity. Her host liked that. Indonesian Foreign Minister
Hassan Wirajuda spoke warmly of a new "partnership" with the United States. His
guest liked that.
President Barack Hussein Obama, when he comes, will bring with him his memories
of childhood in Jakarta, his accent-free facility in Indonesian, his
Muslim-sounding name, and his willingness to reach out to the world in a way
that his predecessor in the White House never could. Indonesians like him.
Unlike then-president George W Bush in Baghdad in December, Hillary did not
have to dodge thrown shoes. An Indonesian official laughed at the very idea
that it might have been necessary to warn local journalists to keep their
footwear to themselves.
As for Obama, during the US presidential campaign, a BBC poll had Indonesians
preferring him to his rival Senator John McCain by a margin of more than four
to one. Across 22,000-plus respondents in Asian or Pacific countries, only
Australians were more pro-Obama. Indonesian photographer Ilham Anas' uncanny
resemblance to the US president was enough to make Anas an instant celebrity
When I reverse their question by asking Indonesians "When should Obama come?"
they nearly always say "Soon!" It is I, not they, who caution against an
American president dropping by at such an intensely political time in their
Thousands upon thousands of candidates from more than three dozen parties are
campaigning for some 16,000 legislative seats at provincial, district and city
levels, 550 seats in the national legislature, and 132 seats in the country's
upper house. On April 9, up to 170 million eligible voters will mark ballots to
refill these bodies. On July 8 and again, if needed, in a run-off election on
September 8, millions of Indonesians will return to the polls to choose a
president and a vice president for the next five years.
November is nice
Obama should not come to Indonesia now. Not in the middle of this Year of
Politicking Vigorously. Incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly
known as SBY, is campaigning hard for re-election. The stakes are as high as
the competition is fierce. Hosting the leader of the world's most powerful
country would arouse SBY's opponents to accuse Washington of interfering in
domestic Indonesian politics. One hardline Islamist group has already slammed
SBY as "America's pet".
It was once thought that Obama might visit Indonesia early in his presidency.
He plans instead to travel, in April, to Turkey. The most appropriate window
for his trip to Indonesia will open in November, either before or after he
attends the summit of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)
forum in Singapore in the middle of that month. Singapore is only slightly more
than an hour by air from Jakarta.
By November, Indonesia's electoral cycle will be over, partisan tempers should
have cooled, and a new government will be in place to receive and host Obama.
On the US side, insofar as recession-weary Americans may expect their president
to be focused on economic matters, the "E" in APEC will help the White House
justify his trip.
Forging a "new" American-Indonesian "partnership" is likely to be a theme of
Obama's visit to Jakarta. Good relations with Indonesia are hardly new. The US
has long been, and remains, widely engaged in Southeast Asia. But if engagement
between people augurs the would-be permanence of marriage, engagement between
countries is contingent and requires constant reassurance.
Indonesia's need for reassurance is heightened when the other party is a
distant and globally committed superpower prone to fits of distraction by
crises and concerns elsewhere. Jakarta's need is further intensified when
another big and powerful country - China - is permanently nearby, not far out
of sight and never out of mind. Traditionally among foreign-policy realists
here, Washington's indifference has helped sustain a kind of low-level anxiety
over long-run Chinese dominance and Indonesian dependence.
Obama's ascent has already reduced this concern, and his actual arrival will
shrink it further. Policymakers in this city are not so naive as to think that
the US president's childhood years here have made him wholly or forever
pro-Indonesian. But in local eyes, the fact of Hillary Clinton's visit and the
prospect of Obama's are clear and welcome signals of Washington's desire to
upgrade its ties with Jakarta.
On March 8, Chinese vessels harassed an American intelligence-gathering ship in
disputed waters south of China's naval base on Hainan island. I asked a panel
of Indonesian defense-policy analysts and officials whether they supported
Beijing's or Washington's view of the incident. Publicly, they were
noncommittal. Others in Indonesia's defense establishment, however, implied
privately that regional security was being served, not undermined, by American
monitoring of Chinese submarines. It is not widely realized that US and
Indonesian personnel take part in more than 100 instances of defense and
security cooperation every year.
Beyond photo ops
There are differences between Jakarta and Washington as to how their ties
should be improved. The Indonesian side wants a "comprehensive partnership" to
be announced in a joint statement by the two presidents, SBY and Obama. The
statement's details would then be filled in by mid-level officials in Jakarta
and Washington. In contrast to this top-down approach, the American side is
more comfortable negotiating upward - deciding on the details first and then
treating them as building blocks of enhanced bilateral engagement.
The planning and timing of the partnership will be affected by the results of
this year's elections in Indonesia. The presidency is SBY's to lose.
Conventional wisdom views him as a shoo-in for re-election, perhaps even in the
first round of voting for president and vice president in July. Between now and
then, however, the global economic crisis could damage Indonesia enough to
boost his rivals' chances. In the months to come, the less likely SBY's
continuation in office appears to be, the more tentatively will Jakarta and/or
Washington approach their proposed partnership.
There is, in any case, still time and opportunity to reach agreement by
November on both the principles and the specifics of cooperation. SBY and Obama
will meet at the Group of 20 summit in London in early April, and bilateral
advisory discussions are planned for mid-April in Washington.
As these conversations begin, some things are already clear regarding the US
president's trip. Thoughtful Indonesians are not interested in merely serving
as extras in news footage of Obama smiling and waving to cheering crowds. They
want the partnership to have substance. Development assistance, including
especially cooperation on education, figures high on the list of Indonesian
priorities. So does the Middle East. Makers and analysts of foreign policy join
moderate Islamist politicians here in hoping that, before coming to Jakarta,
Obama will have taken concrete steps, however modest, toward an eventual
two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That said, the symbolism of Obama's visit will matter. Indonesian enthusiasm
for him is real and widespread. But his meteoric rise in local esteem reflects
in part just how low America's image sank under his predecessor.
Indonesian-language books on sale here that focus on America as opposed to
Obama are overwhelmingly, even polemically, critical of US actions and motives.
In Goodbye, Bush! the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Obama's
predecessor in Baghdad is praised for standing up to "American arrogance and
Another paperback exalts Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as a courageous
David braving the savage megalomania of the American Goliath. Deadly Mist
claims Washington purposely engineered deadly epidemics such as AIDS, SARS and
avian flu. Anti-Semitic literature that demonizes Israel as an attack dog of
Washington in its putative war on the Muslim world is also available for sale.
Yet these titles are outnumbered by a raft of short, quickie books that laud
Obama, while a smaller genre specializes in celebrating his wife Michelle.
Typical of these hagiographies is Obama: American President and Child of Menteng.
(Menteng is the Jakarta neighborhood where he lived from 1967 to 1971, between
the ages of six and 10.) Among the admiring "facts" about Obama listed on Obama's
cover are that he "was once an Indonesian citizen" and that, as president, he
"will stop the policies and actions that have destroyed the moral authority of
It is not entirely facetious to suggest that observers of Obama's run for the
White House in 2008 and SBY's campaigns for the State Palace in 2004 and 2009
should be forgiven if at times they forgot which country they were in.
The Democratic Party of Obama is nearly identical in name to the Democrat Party
of SBY. On American television last November, the states that voted for Obama
were colored blue to distinguish them from the red states that went for
Republican McCain. SBY's chosen campaign color is blue, in contrast to the red
posters, flags and t-shirts preferred by his chief competitor for the
presidency, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Obama's campaign slogan in 2008 was "Yes We
Can!" SBY's 2004 presidential campaign motto was "Together We Can!" (SBY's
current slogan is no less vague, just more urgent: "We Must Be Able To!")
Such parallels drove one leader of SBY's party, Anas Urbaningrum, to hope that
the Democratic Party's "blue victory in America in 2008 will, Allah willing, be
followed by a victory for the Democrat Party in Indonesia". Not to be outdone,
SBY's rival Megawati said she was driven by her own "Obama spirit" to "do the
best for the Indonesian people".
Indonesians are well aware that Obama is the first American president with, as
they put it, "black skin", and this breakthrough, too, has inspired local
analysts to draw local lessons. SBY is Javanese. Javanese are the country's
largest but by no means its only ethnic group. Traditionally their political
influence has been more or less comparable to that of Caucasians in America.
Political scientist Mohammad Qodari has gone so far as to argue that Obama's
success and popularity in the US have helped Indonesians to rethink and abandon
the prejudicial notion that their own president has to be a Javanese.
The subjective appropriation of Obama's iconic image and success to serve
domestic Indonesian uses stands in dramatic contrast to the invisibility of the
world's fourth-most populous country to most Americans. Nevertheless, inside
the Beltway that encircles Washington DC, SBY's Indonesia is being used by
policy influentials to justify hopes and allay fears that are distinctively
American in character.
When American public figures praise Indonesia as a "moderate Muslim democracy",
or use other words to that effect, they are satisfying a characteristically
American need for reassurances: that Islam really is a moderate religion; that
Islam and democracy are compatible; and that the one country with more Muslims
than any other is now an apparently stable and successful democracy.
If Indonesians have embraced Obama as a not-Bush, Indonesia is to Americans a
not-Iraq - or, insofar as the locus of quagmire may have shifted from Baghdad
to Kabul, a not-Afghanistan. If Obama's success serves Indonesian purposes,
Indonesia's success serves American ones. Appropriation turns out to be a
One may even discern in this symbolic American cooptation of SBY's Indonesia an
echo of the American appropriation of an earlier Indonesia - the one ruled for
more than three decades by president Suharto. That regime was autocratic and
corrupt, but it was also politically stable, economically dynamic and notably
anti-communist. For those in Washington who supported and prosecuted the war on
communism in Southeast Asia, Indonesia became a reassuring not-Vietnam.
Indonesia was even used to justify the Vietnam War with the self-serving and
solipsistic argument that, absent the American effort to crush communism in
Indochina, Suharto would not have been emboldened to do so in Indonesia.
Objectively, Indonesia and America differ greatly. When it comes to
subjectivity, however, each one tends to see in the other what, for its own
home-grown reasons, it would like to see. This is normal and, in principle,
helpful; there is nothing wrong with reassurance. In the months to come,
however, if and as Indonesian and American negotiators proceed to shape a
"comprehensive partnership" between their two countries, they would do well to
monitor and limit the distance between what one partner really is and what the
other partner wishes it to be.
Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University.
He is a co-author of Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political
Islam (Stanford University Press, November 2009) and Hard Choices:
Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (Stanford/ISEAS, 2008).