Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Indonesia’s Obama, Washington’s Indonesia

Guest Author: Donald K. Emmerson, Southeast Asia Forum, Stanford University
Jakarta, Indonesia—‘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.

No Shoes
Hillary Clinton’s visit in February 2009 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.
Secretary 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 John McCain by a margin of more than 4 to 1. Across 22,000-plus respondents in Asian or Pacific countries, only Australians were more pro-Obama. Indonesian photographer Ilham Anas’s uncanny resemblance to the US president was enough to make Anas an instant celebrity here.
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 country.
On 9 April, up to 170 million eligible voters marked ballots in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections. On 8 July and again, if needed, in a run-off election on 8 September, 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 (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 hard-line 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 naïve 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 8 March, 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 the US and Indonesian personnel take part in more than a hundred 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 on 8 July. Between now and then, however, the global economic crisis could damage Indonesia enough to boost his rivals’ chances. In 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 G20 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 symbolics 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 hegemony’. Another paperback exalts Iranian President 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 Barack 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 in 1967-1971 between the ages of six and ten. 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 America’.

Wishful Seeing
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 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!’
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 two-way street.
One may even discern in this symbolic American cooption 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 anticommunist. 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 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.

Professor Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center 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). An earlier version of this essay was published in Asia Times 25 March 2009.

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US gives a long overdue nod to Indonesia

Guest Author: Ann Marie Murphy, Whitehead School of Diplomacy
Hillary Clinton deserves credit for making Indonesia the second country she visited as Secretary of State. Indonesia may be the world’s fourth most populous country, third largest democracy, and home to the world’s largest community of Muslims, but it is also the most important country Americans know virtually nothing about. Clinton’s visit sends an early signal to Jakarta that Washington recognizes Indonesia’s growing international clout and builds a firm foundation for future cooperation.
Clinton’s trip had multiple goals: to highlight the example Indonesia’s transition to democracy sets for the broader Muslim world; to reinforce US interest in Southeast Asia by visiting the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to lay the foundation for a strategic partnership with Indonesia. Indonesian officials welcomed US attention to their country and recognition of its achievements over the past decade.
Much of the commentary on Clinton’s visit has focused on the example that Indonesia sets as a political democracy in a majority Muslim nation. Clinton praised Indonesia’s political transformation for illustrating that ‘Islam, democracy and modernity cannot only coexist but thrive together.’
Such statements ignore Indonesia’s religious pluralism. Yes, Indonesia is home to the world’s largest community of Muslims. Eighty-eight percent of its 245 million people profess the Islamic faith, which means that Islam has more adherents in Indonesia than in all Arab states combined. But it is not an Islamic state. Indonesia recognizes Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as official religions. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Christmas and Good Friday are national holidays in Indonesia.
Clinton noted that Indonesia could help the Barack Obama administration by serving as a bridge to the Muslim world. Many Indonesians believe that their experience with economic development, political reform, and Islamic terrorism gives it the authority to speak to the challenges facing the Islamic community such as poverty, oppression, and ‘Islamophobia’. In a speech in Saudi Arabia, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stressed that Islam was once not only a religion of peace, but also one of progress. He argued that Muslims should respond to current challenges by embracing technology, modernity, and a culture of excellence. US interests are clearly served when the leader of the world’s largest Muslim country makes such statements. Indonesia, however, has never played a large role in the broader Islamic world, and many Arabs view Indonesians as second-class Muslims. Whether Indonesia can influence its Islamic brethren remains to be seen.
Divergent stances toward Middle East peace also complicate Indonesia’s ability to serve as a bridge to the Muslim world. The US supported Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon and its recent invasion of Gaza; Indonesia loudly condemned both. In Jakarta, Clinton acknowledged Indonesian anger over the actions in Gaza. She stated that the Barack Obama administration favored a two-state solution to the crises and would work hard to resolve what she termed a painful and difficult issue. Many Indonesians have high hopes that the Obama administration will move away from what they viewed as the Bush administration’s knee-jerk support of Israel and adopt a more even-handed approach. This may reduce tensions between Washington and Jakarta, but it will remain a thorn in the relationship until some comprehensive solution is reached.
Indonesia has also taken steps to promote democracy abroad. It insisted that a commitment to democracy and human rights be included in the new ASEAN charter. Jakarta has pressured the Myanmar junta, albeit unsuccessfully, to reform politically. In December 2008, Indonesia launched the Bali Democracy Forum, which will bring together over 30 Asian countries for annual meetings to share experience and work out best practices on political reform.
While a boon to US interests, democracy promotion Indonesian style differs greatly from its US counterpart. Most Americans have never lived under anything but a democratic system, so democracy promotion is often an ideological crusade by people who lack an appreciation of the difficulties involved in building viable democratic regimes. Indonesians, in contrast, lived through decades of authoritarianism before embarking on a transition to democracy in 1998. Indonesia’s efforts to promote democracy, therefore, are based not only on ideology, but also on a pragmatic appreciation of the benefits. Many Indonesian diplomats claim that what gives their democracy promotion efforts credibility is their ability to tell others, ‘if we can do it with all of our problems, you can do it too’.
Clinton’s trip to Indonesia also underscores the Obama administration’s intention to pay more attention to Southeast Asia. In Jakarta, Clinton visited the ASEAN Secretariat - the first by a US Secretary of State. Her announcement that the US would begin the process of signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the organization’s regional code of conduct, was widely welcomed in Asia. Ratification of the treaty, however, must be approved by the US Senate, and it is far from clear whether that support will be forthcoming.
The US and Indonesia both signaled a desire to forge a ‘comprehensive partnership’ that would expand and deepen all aspects of the bilateral relationship and create a framework to advance common interests, such as environmental protection, climate change, trade and investment, democracy, health, education, counter-terrorism, and regional security issues. Precisely how this might evolve is unclear.
Despite strong Indonesian opposition to the Bush administration’s military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, relations improved dramatically during Bush’s second term. Washington lifted the military embargo against Indonesia, extended US$157 million of educational aid, rescinded its travel ban, and supported the Aceh Peace Process. Officials on both sides agree that US-Indonesian relations are the best they have been in decades.
In a December 2008 speech in Washington, President Yudhoyono called for a ’strategic partnership’ with the US, but Indonesian officials have backed away from this term in favor of ‘comprehensive partnership’. Indonesians remember with gratitude US relief efforts in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami. US restrictions on military-to-military relations and on sales of equipment in earlier years, however, have created a perception among Indonesian defense officials that the US is unreliable and made them wary of over-dependence on the US as a supplier of military equipment. Moreover, Indonesians are staunchly nationalist, guard their national sovereignty jealously and would never permit foreign military bases on Indonesian soil. These factors place limits on future security cooperation.
Environmental concerns, particularly climate change, are issues that both sides see as a basis for strategic cooperation. Indonesia is an archipelagic state that has lost a number of its 17,000 islands to climate change and is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases due to deforestation. But there are significant domestic obstacles in both countries to environmental cooperation. For Indonesia, grappling effectively with deforestation will entail cracking down on illegal logging and plantation building, both of which are backed by powerful interests. The Obama administration will likely face significant hurdles attempting to secure congressional support for his environmental initiatives. In the absence of significant domestic support, it is difficult to envision how the US and Indonesia can embark on ambitious cooperation on environmental issues.
Obama is widely popular in Indonesia, and his inauguration has created a new opening for US-Indonesian relations. This is not only because he lived in Indonesia as child, but also because of what his election signals about the US. An America willing to elect a man whose father was a Muslim immigrant from Africa and who had an Indonesian stepfather is a country tolerant of diversity and one that lives up to the ideals of equal opportunity it espouses abroad. It is a country that Indonesians can identify with.
Clinton was wise to seize the opportunity Obama’s election created to enhance relations with Indonesia, despite the obstacles already discussed. What makes Indonesia a unique international actor is its membership in a number of important global communities: it resides physically in Asia but is part of the broader Muslim world, the developing world, and the community of democracies. Its ability to navigate between these important constituencies in the service of international peace and prosperity makes Indonesia a potentially valuable international player. American attention to Indonesia is long overdue.
Ann Marie Murphy is assistant professor at the John C Whitehead School of Diplomacy & International Relations, Seton Hall University, adjunct research fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University, and an Asia Society associate fellow.

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A surprise choice? Dr Boediono is selected as SBY’s running mate

May 15th, 2009
Author: Chris Manning, Indonesia Project, ANU
It’s all but official, yet still a surprise. Economic analyst, manager and academic, Dr Boediono, the current Central Bank Governor, has been named as President Yudhoyono’s choice of running mate for the first round of Presidential elections in July.

Some nine political parties have been jostling for influence in Indonesia’s emerging political make-up for 2009-2014. Many, especially in the main Muslim parties, would dearly have liked their leader to be selected by the popular President as the ‘CA-WA-PRES’, SBYs Vice Presidential running mate. In return, they would surely pledge their political support.
So why select a technocrat? Is SBY hankering for the bad old Soeharto days, when technocrats proposed and the President decided on policy, seemingly oblivious to social forces around him?
The announcement has come after several weeks of intense speculation as to who would be chosen by SBY. Although the Democrats are expected to be the largest party in the new parliament, they will hold only around one quarter of all seats. SBY will need the support of several minor parties to govern effectively.
Why then select a seeming rank outsider to the political game, who might seem to offer little in terms of bolstering the stocks of the President in the parliament?
An obvious answer might be that it’s the economy, stupid. SBY expects the Indonesian people to find comfort in the selection of a highly regarded and experienced manager as their Vice President, in the context of the global economic crisis. Boediono could thus be expected to bolster SBY’s popularity in the Presidential race at a time of uncertainty, even if he contributed little to shoring up political support in the parliament.
Such an interpretation would suggest that SBY is thinking more about the short term advantage, rather than winning the longer term battle of pushing reform through the legislature.
But there is a catch. The Indonesian economy has been doing remarkably well, amidst the tumbling fortunes of its neighbours. Prices have actually fallen, including those of important staples, for several months in 2009. SBYs popularity is high precisely because of the seeming economic success of government policies (and a little bit of luck). One can also point to the impact that Boediono’s calm and steady leadership of Bank Indonesia has had on confidence in financial markets, during a difficult time.
So why change a winning formula? Perhaps the answer to the puzzle lies in two other key areas, rather than in the economic credentials that Boediono brings to the Presidential ticket. The first relates to the role that the current Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, has had in policy making, and his relationship with SBY in the past five years.
While Kalla was often seen to be given a free reign in pushing key economic policy decisions (such as the oil price hike in 2005), his impetuous, can-do style, fashioned from years of experience as a businessman, is said to have grated with the President.
Further, not infrequently SBY was forced to share the limelight with his Vice President. And there was always a sense that the Vice President was ready to cut corners to get the job done, sometimes undermining the carefully crafted image of rules-based government projected by SBY.
Boediono could be expected to offer equally valuable advice on the economy. But he is likely to do so in a more measured fashion and away from the cameras, as he did for several years as the Economics Coordinating Minister. As many have been quick to point out, he has shown no sign of political ambition, which cannot be said of many other potential contenders for the Vice Presidency. And he is pronounced by all to be squeaky clean.
It is also worth pointing out that although Boediono is not a politician, he certainly does not appear politically naïve. He has laboured hard in selling the government’s economic policies to cocky and often self interested parliamentarians, since his elevation to Finance Minister in the Megawati government in 2001.
Second, selection of Vice-Presidential candidate from any one of the Muslim parties risked alienating the others. Representatives of all the Muslim parties (and especially those of PKS and PAN) have mouthed their disapproval of Boediono’s selection, rather than a choice of one of their own candidates. Nonetheless, if another Muslim party candidate had been chosen by SBY, one senses the disenchantment of the others would have been much deeper and politically harmful to the President’s would-be coalition with the Muslim parties. The case is different for a politically neutral candidate. It is less likely that any of the parties will risk being sidelined simply because their leader was passed over by SBY in his choice of a running mate.
Time will tell, in politics as well as in policy, whether the President has made the right choice. Selecting a reliable lieutenant with a similar cautious bent, another Javanese, might seem to go against the grain in Indonesian politics. But if he is elected for a final term, perhaps having a soul mate in the Palace will give SBY more leeway and greater confidence to take stronger stands on big policy issues, both nationally and internationally, in his second and last term in office.
Of course, he still has to be elected. But at the time of writing few political pundits are betting on the opposition teams.
Dr Boediono was a strong supporter of the establishment of EABER and launched it in Bandung Indonesia in 2005 when he was Minister for Coordinating Economic Affairs.
This article was originally published on ANU’s Indonesia Project blog, and may be found here.

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