Mr Obama doesn't go to Jakarta

Joshua Kurlantzick · US-Indonesian Relations

After cancelling Obama’s planned visit to Indonesia this month so he could stay in America and handle the BP oil spill, the White House moved quickly to tamp down any concerns that the cancellation, which is the third time the president has nixed a trip to Indonesia, would hurt bilateral relations. A spokesman told reporters that Obama had called the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to express his regret, and other White House officials suggested in private that Yudhoyono and other senior Indonesians understood the magnitude of the oil spill and held no grudge.

Yudhoyono may not be personally miffed, but the cancellation will hurt US relations with Indonesia, since it strengthens the hand of anti-American politicians there – both from Islamic parties and from Golkar, the notoriously corrupt party of the former dictator Suharto – who have always believed that Yudhoyono was naive to trust Washington and to push the country towards closer ties to America. Criticising the president is now easier than ever for these sceptics, who have already gained ground in Jakarta, essentially forcing out the reform-minded finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

More important, this third cancellation is part of a broader, unflattering narrative about the Obama administration. After George W. Bush mostly ignored Asia to focus on Iraq and the Middle East, the Obama administration, early on, promised to re-engage with the region. 'The United States is back,' Hillary Clinton announced on an early visit, and Obama was the first American president to meet with all ten Southeast Asian leaders. But in recent months, it’s become clear that, like Bush, Obama is going to make most of Asia a second or third priority, after the Middle East and Afghanistan. Relations with India aren't as good as they should be, and in Japan some lawmakers blame a White House whispering campaign for undermining the former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who recently stepped down.

Assisting in the recovery from the earthquakes that hit the archipelago earlier this week may help America's image in Indonesia. And, perhaps, when (or if) he actually makes it to Asia in November, Obama will be able to patch things up. The president remains his most effective spokesman, and in Indonesia at least, his childhood in Jakarta still makes average people willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But if Obama continues in this vein, even Jakarta residents who want to welcome back a favourite son may no longer care.