Why Obama skipping Jakarta might not be so bad

| Evan A. Laksmana and Hazelia Margaretha | Jakarta, 19 December 2009 |

They say Indonesia is the most important country that the United States knows very little about. Cynics recited this cliche when airing their disappointment as President Barack Obama went on his big Asia tour recently, skipping Jakarta.

After all, Obama supposedly has deep, long-standing ties with Indonesia, going way back to his childhood. In fact, “Barry” – as President Obama is popularly known by Indonesians – has become something of an icon in Indonesian politics in the past year.

As such, some have been tempted to argue that perhaps Indonesia’s role in the American grand strategy is not so pivotal after all. Upon a closer look, however, Obama skipping Indonesia was perhaps not such a bad thing for both countries.

In Jakarta, domestic politics these days aren’t exactly in the best shape. It is not only the current political tension pitting the National Police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) making almost every issue a potential powder keg, but there has also been growing signs of discomfort among elites over the “Americanization” of Indonesian politics.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, himself a US-trained retired general, perhaps said it best with a quote attributed to him in 2003: “I love the United States with all its faults. I consider it my second country.” His eldest son is also currently studying at Harvard.

Meanwhile, 10 out of 16 foreign-educated ministers in his newly minted Cabinet were educated in America’s top schools too. Many of his closest advisers – now located in a revamped presidential office modeled on the West Wing – were also trained in the US.

In fact, Yudhoyono’s entire re-election campaign “theme” could be said to have mirrored that of Obama. From his candidacy, and campaign management, to his acceptance speech and his inauguration, the American nuances cannot be simply ignored.

These trends preceded the current domestic tension surrounding the KPK-versus-police saga and related parliamentary inquiry into the government-backed bailout of Bank Century – which the press speculated involved high-level government officials.

As such, if Obama were to show up in Jakarta two weeks ago, he would be seen as lending credence or “support” to the embattled Yudhoyono.

Additionally, if a town hall interview is scheduled, Obama himself could have been put in a tough spot when locals asked for his comments on corruption and good governance – two hot button issues for Jakarta. If this happens, there is a chance that given his charisma and track record, Obama might exercise “speaking truth to power” a little too far than Jakarta could bear.

More importantly, disgruntled Jakarta elites would also jump at the chance to paint Yudhoyono as an “American puppet” and push him even further. After all, stepping up the pressure cooker against the go-vernment is less a taboo today than it was a decade ago – and playing the “anti-American” card is the easiest way to do it.

Consequently, either Yudhoyono would have to cave in and make further concessions for his opponents, or he would fight back and escalate the situation which could destabilize the country. Either way, Obama’s visit to Jakarta would be a liability for Yu-dhoyono at this point. This perhaps explains why local officials said Obama would visit in early 2010, when he could spend much longer here.

Meanwhile, for Obama, experts have noted that his Asia trip was not so much about coming up with concrete deliverables. It is about the long term – about securing peace among the great powers; assuring friends and allies of American commitment to the region; and building foundations for deeper engagements with China, North Korea and Myanmar.

After all, Obama was dealt a tough hand when he took over from Bush. America’s “neglect” of its Asian commitments during the War on Terror meant Obama needs first and foremost to assure Asian countries he has the long-term interests of the region – stability, peace and prosperity – at heart.

And this means recrafting the concert of power in the region, and recalibrating great power relations; hence the Japan, China and South Korean trips. In this context, Obama skipped Indonesia precisely because the country is exceptionally crucial – from a geostrategic, geopolitical and geoeconomic perspective – for such strategy to work.

America simply cannot afford to lose Indonesia as a partner – which would likely have happened if Obama was seen as a political liability by the Yudhoyono administration.

Not to mention the fact that back home Obama has enough trouble as it is – from the domestic onslaught of his Afghanistan-Iraq strategy, to issues surrounding healthcare reform and the recovery of the US economy. To be seen as kowtowing to a regime currently under assault for corruption charges, and whose human rights record has yet been wiped clean, might ruffle some feathers in the Democrat-led Congress.

It doesn’t take a political genius to realize that you don’t need to make more enemies than you have to.

If however some Indonesians still felt snubbed by “Barry’s” canceled appearance, then the US still has time and capital to fix it with the comprehensive strategic partnership in the pipeline. Hopefully, Yudhoyono will have weathered the current storm by then.

It seems the cardinal rule that “all politics is local” still stands after all.

Evan A. Laksmana is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta, and Hazelia Margaretha is a research analyst with the Indonesia Programme, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.


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