For Indonesia and Obama, 4th Time’s the Charm

The last time President Obama was in this nation of islands, in 1992, he holed up in a rented beachside hut in Bali, where he swam each morning and spent afternoons writing “Dreams From My Father,” the memoirs that later became a best seller. In the book, he shared memories of his life here as a boy, “running barefoot along a paddy field, with my feet sinking into the cool, wet mud, part of a chain of other brown boys chasing after a tattered kite.”

On Tuesday, he returned for the kind of rock star welcome that he no longer gets in the United States. But his long-awaited trip here is being cut short by a cloud of volcanic ash.

Indonesians have prepared three other times for a visit from the president, only to be thrice disappointed. Last year, the White House hinted that Mr. Obama might tuck in an Indonesia stop on a November trip to Asia, but that did not happen. In March, Mr. Obama and his wife and daughters canceled a trip at the last minute so that he could stay home to shepherd his health care bill through Congress. In June, another Indonesia trip was canceled so the president could deal with the BP oil spill.

Now, it is ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi that is interfering with his plans, forcing Mr. Obama to leave the country earlier on Wednesday than he had planned for Seoul, South Korea, where he is to attend the Group of 20 conference of world leaders. He will still deliver a speech at the University of Indonesia, and he will squeeze in a stop at the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia. But his visit to Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in south Jakarta, where Indonesia’s war dead are buried, is being scrapped. And as if that weren’t enough, a loud thunderstorm forced his joint news conference with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono indoors Tuesday evening.

Mr. Obama is on a 10-day, four-country swing through Asia that he is using to promote economic cooperation and strengthen ties with emerging and existing democracies. He is making outreach to the Muslim world a major theme of his stop in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. He closed his remarks at the news conference with the Muslim salute “salaam aleikum” and said he intended to reshape American relations with Muslim nations to not be “solely focused on security issues,” but rather on expanded cooperation across a broad range of areas, from science to education.

Mr. Obama also stepped into an Israeli-Palestinian dispute over Jewish construction, criticizing Israel for its decision to advance the approval of 1,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem during a sensitive time in peace talks. The plight of Palestinians is a big issue in Indonesia, so much so that President Yudhoyono mentioned it in his opening remarks, saying he had told Mr. Obama that “we need a resolution on Palestine and Israel in a permanent, sustainable manner.”

Later, Mr. Obama was asked about the settlements. “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations, and I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough,” he said, adding, “Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust.”

Aides say the speech Mr. Obama will give on Wednesday will build on one he delivered in Cairo last year, in which he called for “a new beginning” with the Muslim world. At Tuesday’s news conference, he was asked to assess progress thus far. “I think it’s an incomplete project,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama spent four years, from age 6 to 10, in Indonesia, living here with his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and stepfather, Lolo Soetoro. In his memoirs he writes richly of the experience. He described the markets: “the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.” He wrote of his introduction to the food: “dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy).” And the menagerie in his backyard: “chickens and ducks running every which way, a big yellow dog with a baleful howl, two birds of paradise, a white cockatoo and finally two baby crocodiles.”

Jakarta is also the place that has given rise to many of the myths and falsehoods about Mr. Obama, including the rumor that he is Muslim (he is Christian); that he attended a madrasa that was connected to radical Islam (he attended two schools here, one Roman Catholic and one secular, although most of the students were Muslim); and that he was not born in the United States (he was born in Hawaii). And his visit here, including the trip to the mosque on Wednesday, is bound to provoke more anti-Obama sentiment at home.

Here in Jakarta, though, the only complaints about Mr. Obama are that it took him so long to get here. The president said he had come to “focus not on the past but the future.” But Indonesians obviously had something else in mind.

When Air Force One touched down here in a typical Southeast Asia afternoon thunderstorm, a huge cheer went up in the State Palace complex — not from ordinary Indonesians, but from the local press corps, watching on television. “Finally, he arrived!” exulted Glenn Jos, a local television cameraman.

After descending the steps of his plane, Mr. Obama, in a dark suit, accompanied by his wife, Michelle, walked the red carpet that had been laid out for him and stepped into his big black Cadillac limousine. He poked his head out the door to give a short wave.

“Yes!” the Indonesian reporters shouted.

Later, at a state dinner in his honor, Mr. Obama was served bakso, nasi goreng, emping and other Indonesian dishes he said he had loved as a boy. And in a gesture that Mr. Obama said left him “deeply moved,” Mr. Yudhoyono presented the president with a gold medal in honor of Mr. Obama’s mother, who worked here for years as an anthropologist and a pioneer in microcredit for the poor.

Jakarta has undergone a dramatic transformation since Mr. Obama first moved here in 1967, and Mr. Obama said he barely recognized it. “It’s a little disorienting,” he said, noting that then, the tallest building in downtown Jakarta was a shopping mall, Sarinah, that has now been eclipsed by many modern skyscrapers. He recalled how people got around in “little taxis, but you stood in the back and it was very crowded,” or on bicycle rickshaws. (Mr. Obama used the Indonesian word for them: becak.)

“Now,” Mr. Obama said, “as president I can’t even see all the traffic because they block all the streets.” (Quote from the New York Times)

 

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