La Riposte

Friday, November 12, 2010

Style over Substance: Obama's Indonesian Address

The view from the cheap seats during President Obama’s speech at the University of Indonesia revealed a US preference for style over substance, insofar as Indonesia is concerned. The President’s use of Indonesian idioms throughout his smoothly delivered speech, and frequent references to his boyhood here clearly resonated with the crowd, which had been carefully screened and selected from numerous educational institutions throughout Indonesia and bussed to the speech site several hours earlier.

But his delivery of thoughts on his 3 key themes, development, democracy, and religion, were received without a great deal of applause. This may have had something to do with the fact that he made neither any concrete offers to aid Indonesia in the first area, nor asked the Indonesian people to assist America throughout the world with its unique positioning and experience relative to the latter two themes.

Contrast this to China, the target of Presidential asides such as “prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.” That regional hegemon has just pledged $6.6 billion dollars of badly-needed aid to improve Indonesia’s strained infrastructure, but the United States, despite Obama’s characterization of America and Indonesia as being “neighbors across the Pacific” has offered no such tangible support. The US has offered the Indonesian government a $300 million dollar grant to acquire 2 more squadrons of US-made F-16 fighters, but Indonesian Air Force generals are still debating the long-term costs of maintenance, which they would be required to bear.

Likewise, though he touched on the foundering negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, calling for an “outcome that is just and in the interest of both sides… two states, living side by side in peace and security” he made no call for Indonesia to involve itself more deeply in the process, despite the fact that the country which boasts the greatest Muslim population in the world has a great deal of experience in negotiating difficult questions regarding emerging states, as evidenced by the relatively recent birth of Timor Leste, and the process that resulted in Aceh remaining a part of Indonesia, albeit with greatly extended autonomy in several areas of governance.

In the end, “Mas Obama” (literally, brother) gave the Indonesian people enough of what they wanted (a bit of nostalgic auld lang syne about chasing goats and water buffalos through the rice paddys) and nothing that they didn't (such as any mention of recent torture incidents by the Army in Papua) to make his visit a relatively successful one.

Still, there were plenty of lost opportunities here that have not been lost on the Indonesian people and press. Compared to India, where he spent 3 days, his less-than-24-hour trip was, well, less than 24 hours. He made no visit of either of the recent disaster sites, Mount Merapi or the Mentawai Islands, pledged no disaster relief funds, and committed to no major economic, military, or foreign policies, in stark contrast to India where he promised to support a bid for a seat on an expanded UN Security Council.

The Indonesian proverb “Gajah mati meninggalkan gadingnya, macan mati meninggalkan belangnya, manusia mati meninggalkan namanya” means that when the elephant is gone, it’s remembered for its tusks, the tiger for its stripes, but a man, only by his deeds. And at the end of the day, even a President is just a man, and only time can tell whether, with respect to Indonesia, Obama will be remembered as a man of action, or simply a well-loved brother who left home to make good in a foreign land.

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