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“Third Strike for Obama’s Indonesia Visit”
The prophetic novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again,” and apparently he was right. In the wee hours of Friday morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs delivered the verdict on President Barack Obama’s third attempt to visit Indonesia, a country where he grew up and a relationship his administration had hoped to enhance in a transformative manner, along the lines of the Bush administration’s changed paradigm with India.

Gibbs explained that, with the Gulf of Mexico still in crisis, the president could not follow through on his planned visit to Indonesia and Australia, the latter being one of the United States’ five treaty allies in Asia. This is the third time—the proverbial third strike—that the president has postponed his trip.

The decision belies a narrative the Obama administration had tried to write—that it was going to “get Asia right” and engage the region at the highest levels in a serious and sustained manner to advance U.S. interests. It would reverse the woeful attendance record of the Bush administration with respect to showing up for the major events in Asia; it understood that “being there” was more than half the battle for reversing perceptions of U.S. disengagement. That storyline lost credibility today.

The decision will also send tremors of uncertainty through Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and it is well known that President Obama has a personal interest in this anchor nation. If he can’t show up there after three attempts, how likely is it that the United States is serious about sustaining its involvement in the region at a political level? At a time when the nations of the region have serious questions about how far they want to go in reacting to China’s charm offensive, the apparent lack of U.S. focus will make the region’s leaders feel anxious and unbalanced. If not corrected in the near future, it may also send them thinking about strategic alternatives, which could influence thinking about regional structures. Is the United States really ready to be part of the East Asia Summit? What if the president of the United States doesn’t show for summit meetings?

To his credit, President Obama made the call early, telephoned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia, and explained the urgency of the situation in the Gulf. Both leaders said they understood, and there are plans to meet on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 meeting in Toronto later this month. But the damage is done.

The factor that must be addressed to prevent this situation from becoming endemic is that leaders—in this case, President Obama—must have the courage to explain to Americans why traveling to countries like Indonesia, the fourth-largest nation in the world, and Australia, a treaty ally and critical friend, is as important to our country’s economy and national security as an oil spill in the Gulf. He must explain that he needs to follow through on plans to develop ties with these countries while he manages the Gulf situation using technology and his team.

A creative writer like Wolfe would be hard pressed to come up with a plot in which a British oil company not only fouls the world-renowned Gulf oyster but also derails a significant element of U.S. foreign policy in Asia. Truth, once again, outperforms fiction.
Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).




 

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