Though President Barack Obama’s first few weeks in office have been somewhat turbulent, in terms of foreign policy he is off to a good, strong start. With an overt combination of words and deeds he is clearly trying hard to fulfil his campaign promise to restore America’s reputation and moral leadership in the world.
Without wasting any time, on his first day in office Obama signed executive orders on the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the ban on the use of torture and the ban on the CIA’s secret prison program. In an absolute demonstration of an early outreach to the Muslim world, he granted his first-ever interview as President to Al-Arabiya TV station. As a way to set a new tone in US engagement with the Muslim world he carefully avoided the phrase “war on terror” in that interview.
Obama also swiftly and proactively addressed the Middle East situation – an issue that has been a thorn in US relations with the Muslim world – by appointing former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (who is of Lebanese extraction) as Special Envoy and sending him to the region without delay.
Another encouraging sign is Obama picked a pragmatic foreign policy and national security team that will most likely not be encumbered by preconceived ideological principles. Two key members of the team, Director of the National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair (as) and National Security Advisor General Jim Jones, in particular, have had exposure to the Southeast Asian region.
And of course for Indonesia the most encouraging sign is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is coming here as part of her first overseas trip. As much as Obama still has emotional ties to this country, no one probably predicted that as President he would put Indonesia high up on his initial foreign policy agenda along with the three major powers in Asia: China, Japan and South Korea.
This clearly shows that the Obama administration recognizes Indonesia’s geopolitical importance as the largest country in Southeast Asia as well as a vibrant democracy with the largest Muslim population. The visit – as well as Obama’s strong historical ties to Indonesia – will undoubtedly create expectations here that the Obama administration will focus a good amount of attention toward Indonesia
All of that being said, however, we must temper our expectations with a healthy dose of reality.
As much as Obama intends to elevate US-Indonesia relations, the United States will be preoccupied with the pressing economic situation for months or perhaps years to come. Obama’s first and foremost duty is obviously to the American people.
And as much Obama may intend to run a centrist and pragmatic foreign policy pertaining to Indonesia, it remains to be seen how much he will be able to reign in members of his own party in Congress when it comes to issues like labor, the environment and human rights.
While Indonesia has made significant progress in addressing those issues – in particular human rights – outspoken critics on Capitol Hill will endure. Would Obama then be willing to exercise his leadership by urging Congress to approach Indonesia in a more thorough and objective fashion? And to what extent would he be willing to use his political capital to influence members of his own party on issues that are close to their hearts.
As demonstrated by the House version of the financial stimulus package – which still contains pork-barrel spending despite Obama’s commitment to changing the way Washington does business – it may not be easy for Obama to influence the Congressional decision-making process.
As much as Indonesia is indispensable to the United States given its position as an emerging democracy with the largest Muslim majority, Indonesia should not merely be seen by the United States in the context of the Muslim world, but also as pluralistic and culturally diverse. In other words, Indonesia should be seen as a vibrant democracy.
For Indonesia, as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated last November in Washington that Indonesia was ready to enter into a “Strategic Partnership” with the Obama administration, ahead of Secretary Clinton’s visit we should define what a “Strategic Partnership” entails.
Indonesia also needs to be clear on what it seeks as well as what it can bring to the table.
What regional or functional roles is Indonesia prepared to lead in a different direction, and toward what results? Counterproliferation? Counterextremism? Economic reform? Promoting democracy? Assisting failing/failed states?
Indonesia should also be more proactive in putting forward and articulating a short, concise agenda of the most important issues in US-Indonesia relations with special stress on the benefits the United States receives from such a partnership. But more importantly, with Obama in office and Clinton’s upcoming visit, it has to be clear on Indonesia’s side on how strategic it sees the bilateral relations with the United States.
Any effort to strengthen the bilateral relations obviously requires the willingness of both sides to get out of the comfort zone without damaging each side’s national interest. The question is how would Indonesia handle a situation in which a nationalist sentiment is impeding the bilateral relations, which has frequently occurred in the past (for instance, NAMRU)? And how would Indonesia react to another request by Congressman Eni Faleomavaega to visit Papua which may come soon?
This unmistakably means there are things that the United States does that will not please some in Indonesia. Chances are the two sides will also continue to disagree on a number of issues. The question is: Are we going to let disagreements prevent us from focusing on the bigger picture? Indonesia–US relations should focus on what the two countries can do together and stop dwelling too much on issues on which we disagree.
The writer is a Congressional Fellow 2002 -2003 and currently a member of the Indonesia-US House Caucus.