Six months into US President Barack Obama’s tenure, his administration has indicated an interest to enter into a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia, forge better relations with the Muslim world and reassert America’s commitment to Southeast Asia. The policies — all relevant to Indonesia — appear worthwhile enough, but the Obama administration’s self-adulation in pursuing them is not.
No one is surprised that Obama, the son of a Muslim man from Kenya, wishes to make a concerted effort to reach out to the Muslim world. In Cairo on June 4, 2009, he condemned “some” in the United States who view Islam as “inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights” and promised to seek a new beginning based upon “mutual interest and mutual respect.” Though Obama never mentioned Bush’s name, his message was clear: he would be better to the Muslim world than the last guy in the White House.
Obama forgets that even before he arrived on America’s national scene, America’s war on terrorism was not a war against Islam, even if that was the unfortunate perception in certain parts of the world. Obama’s much hated predecessor publicly and consistently referred to Islam as a religion of peace and the terrorists of September 11 as fringe elements who had “hijacked” the religion. Unlike Obama, Bush made these comments not just before adoring crowds in foreign capitals but throughout the United States, including in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when his country was most aggrieved over atrocities committed by terrorists who hailed from Muslim lands.
Certainly, Obama’s selective memory does not diminish the urgent need for further dialogue and understanding between America and the Muslim world. The Obama administration has designated Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-populated country and third largest democracy — as a key partner in the administration’s Muslim outreach. To kick start these efforts, Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Jakarta on her first official overseas trip this past February.
Indonesia, for its part, is eager to participate in Obama’s endeavor. In Washington this past June, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda noted that his country is the perfect poster child for showcasing democracy, respect for human rights and Islam — the type of moderate, tolerant Islam that the United States is eager to support and promote.
Obama, however, is also not the first to recognize Indonesia’s importance to America. Indonesia is one country — one of many — where Obama’s core foreign policy narrative is blatantly false. This narrative declares that Obama has come to save the world from the unilateralism and militarism of the Bush administration. In reality, former President George W. Bush oversaw the development of strong ties between the United States and Indonesia. Though he did not win any popularity contests by offering staunch support for Israel and waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he advanced the US-Indonesia relationship in ways so concrete that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described him as “one of the most pro-Indonesia presidents” in history.
Specifically, the Bush administration recognized Indonesia’s emerging, vibrant democracy by lifting an arms embargo against congressional opposition; sought and secured Indonesia’s cooperation in the global war on terrorism; extended some $157 million to train teachers in Indonesia over a five-year period; supported the peace process in Aceh; included the country in the Millennium Challenge Corporation Threshold Program, a program that provides financial assistance to developing countries to improve economic governance; and in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, steered America to provide billion-plus dollars in assistance to disaster relief.
Washington and Jakarta have now begun a process to enter into “a comprehensive partnership” which will boost the Obama administration’s efforts to reassert US influence in Southeast Asia.
While on her visit to Indonesia in February, Clinton made a point of being the first US Secretary of State to visit the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta. Clinton reaffirmed America’s commitment to the region and promised to attend the Asian Regional Forum’s annual ministerial meeting regularly. She is scheduled to be in Thailand July 22-23 for this year’s ARF and Asean Post-Ministerial Conference.
While US efforts to deepen ties with Southeast Asia are sensible, claims of the Bush administration’s neglect of the region are grossly overstated. Among other things, Bush pressed forward with a free trade agenda vital to the future growth of the economies in the region. His administration supported Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization, concluded a Free Trade Agreement with Singapore, and initiated FTA negotiations with Malaysia and Thailand, as well as increasing assistance to Asean.
This is not the narrative of a hegemon that throws its weight around. It simply does not fit into Obama’s foreign policy narrative, so he — and his administration — prefers not to mention it.
Around the world, many would prefer to forget the concrete accomplishments made under the Bush administration as well. They have now put their faith in a new man. Hopefully, their faith will be rewarded. Yet as the new man attempts to strengthen US relations with Indonesia and Asia, he — and the world — will continue to be indebted to the foreign policy legacy of a man that they would rather forget.
Ying Ma is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution in the United States.