President Barack Obama arrives in Jakarta on Tuesday for a whirlwind visit, assuming that the skies in Jakarta are clear of volcanic ash from Mount Merapi.
This is a visit that is long overdue. Indonesia is the country where Obama spent four years of his childhood and where his late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, dedicated most of her professional life to helping the poor. For those very personal reasons, Indonesia must have a special place in the heart of the American president.
The feeling was mutual, at least until recently. Indonesians cheered with Americans when they voted the first African-American into the White House two years ago. Many said relations between the two countries would be significantly bolstered under Obama.
Unfortunately, almost two years into his presidency, Obama has not set foot in his adopted country. The novelty of the idea that Obama would raise bilateral relations to a whole new level has virtually worn off. The fact that he canceled on Indonesia twice this year due to pressing domestic issues has not helped, no matter how justifiable.
When Obama comes to Indonesia, he will be seen as a little more than another American president who has set foot here — and not that much more.
Probably it is just as well.
Relations between Indonesia and the US have proceeded from strength to strength in the absence of Obama. It is a trend that preceded his presidency. After Indonesia became a democracy, the two countries have forged relations not only based on their mutual national interests, but more importantly, based on shared principles and values.
If Obama had visited Indonesia earlier in his presidency, it could have created undue expectations on both sides. Many people would have rightly asked what Obama could do for Indonesia. This would have placed unnecessary pressures on both governments to try to create an “Obama imprint” on bilateral relations.
As events have proven, the Obama factor was not necessary to bolster relations. The comprehensive partnership that will be signed during his visit testifies to how broad and deep relations have grown in recent years. Indonesia and the United States have grown closer, in spite of Obama’s presidency.
Going by the program of his Indonesian trip, this really is an official state visit. Nothing in the program indicates that it will include a trip down memory lane. He is not visiting his old Indonesian schools and he is not bringing his daughters to show them around, as he had hoped he would.
Coming fresh from a major defeat in the mid-term elections, Obama has told the American public that his Asian tour, which includes India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, is intended to generate jobs for Americans by forging closer economic relations with major Asian countries. Indonesia, a member of the G20 with an ever expanding economy, is well placed to help his plan. The economy will be one of the principal items on the agenda.
Still, we cannot ignore the fact that when Obama lands in Indonesia, it will have personal and emotional affect on him. He will still be given special treatment that no other American president has received. He is sure to be well received by his hosts if he speaks the Indonesian language, as he surely will.
The “Obama spark” might be gone, but Indonesians will give him a hearty and warm homecoming welcome. We look forward to his return to Indonesia for the East Asia Summit meeting in Bali next year, hopefully for a longer stay — and with his daughters.
Selamat datang, Barry.