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Friday, February 22, 2008

Obama - Indonesian point

Misconceptions about presidential candidate Obama


Bara Hasibuan, Jakarta

The exhilaration over Barack Obama's recent surge to claim the front-runner status in the Democratic Party nomination process is not just felt in the United States but also here in Indonesia.

Never before has there ever been a candidate in the history of the U.S. presidential elections with such strong historical ties to this country.

Many here are hopeful that an Obama presidency would usher in a new era in the U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relations. But would it?

First of all the notion that just because a candidate lived in a foreign country for a few years during childhood might somehow mean she or he would focus extra attention to that particular country if elected president is somewhat fanciful. Foreign policy is not driven by romanticism but by priorities and strategic interests.

It is not clear at this point how strategic Indonesia is for Obama -- or for any other candidate for that matter -- as the country has never been brought up throughout the campaign, whether in debates or stump speeches.

In the most comprehensive foreign policy speech Obama made last year in Chicago, Indonesia was hardly mentioned. Obama's foreign policy plan, as laid out on his campaign website, only calls for "new partnerships in Asia", without specifically identifying which countries in Asia with which he would seek new partnerships.

The only serious reference Obama has ever made to Indonesia has been in the context of his childhood living in a country with a Muslim majority which would make him the best candidate in dealing with one of the most pressing challenges the next President would face: repairing the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

But as he was once unduly attacked by a smear campaign charging that he had attended a Madrasah while living in Indonesia, Obama has been forced not to overtly stress his historical ties to the country.

And if we look at Obama's record in the U.S. Senate, it is equally hard to assess how he views Indonesia. Obama does in fact sit on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs but he has never shown notable interest on Indonesian issues.

Yes true on Capitol Hill when it comes to priorities related to Asia, Indonesia is of less importance compared to China, Afghanistan, Japan, India and North Korea.

But there are a handful of senators and congressmen known to take up Indonesian issues from time to time, whether in a critical or a supportive way.

Just to name a few: Senators Patrick Leahy, Kit Bond, Russ Feingold and Congressmen Robert Wexler and Eni Faleomavaega.

It is not clear why Obama has never used his assignment on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs to take up Indonesian issues.

One would think with such strong historical ties Obama would position himself as an ally of Indonesia.

It is conceivable that early on in his Senate career he had made a strategic decision not to get associated with Indonesia as he was already thinking ahead of a possible presidential bid. Or perhaps for Obama Indonesia simply has a less strategic value compared to other foreign policy priorities.

Indeed, whoever ends up in the White House in January 2009 foreign policy priorities for the U.S. will not change dramatically.

The new president will still have to deal with the mess in Iraq, how to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to agree to a workable peaceful solution, uncertainty about Iran's nuclear programs, the rise of Russia as an economic and military power and energy security.

For Asia the priorities will still be dominated by the rise of China, the North Korea nuclear programs, the uncertainty in Pakistan, the mess in Afghanistan and India's economic rise.

And whoever is elected President, he or she will continue to maintain strong ties with U.S. traditional allies in Asia Pacific: Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Another factor that needs to be put into the equation is Congress -- a body that has a lot of influence in shaping U.S. foreign policy through the power of the purse.

The Democrats are expected to continue to control Congress after the 2008 elections. That means issues like human rights, the role of the military and labor that have often times been contentious in the U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relations may not go away.

True one of the main attractions to Obama is that as President he would have the ability to mobilize support from Congress, including from those who are across the aisle.

But it remains unclear whether Obama would have the ability or the power to sway members of his own party on issues that are traditionally close to their hearts.

And we also need to bear in mind that despite all the talk about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle Obama is ideologically liberal.

He in fact was voted the most liberal senator in 2007 by the publication, National Journal. This may make it instinctively hard for him to disregard issues like human rights and labor.

Nevertheless, the prospect of an Obama presidency is thrilling. There is no doubt of all the candidates who remain in the race, he is the best one to restore the U.S. global image.

His assets are obvious: The face and the background. And these assets would be the most powerful weapons to meet one of the biggest challenges for the next administration: How to win the hearts and minds of those who have been alienated by the Bush Administration.

The writer was an American Political Science Association (APSA) congressional fellow 2002-2003.

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