THE SPINE NOVEMBER 11, 2010
There is no mystery as to why President Obama went half away around the globe shortly after the election. Actually, I suspect that he and his folks scheduled the trip precisely to free him from the inevitable (and certainly annoying) queries about his responsibility for the Democratic disaster. There is another reason, however, why he leapt into the arms of foreign leaders (even those who don’t especially like him). And this is that international affairs is his fail-safe bailiwick; and since his only structurally contingent competitor is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it is in Democratic hands (though barely after mid-January) he is likely not to receive much rivalry—”advice and consent”—let alone opposition, from its members.
One has to look back to LBJ’s presidency to find a Senate in the recent past which took its constitutionally sanctioned responsibilities seriously. Even Lyndon Johnson’s vanity couldn’t stop his Vietnam opponents who quickly became his antagonists on virtually everything: J. William Fulbright, who looks uglier in retrospect than his academic pretense then, was more than his match, as were Gene McCarthy, Wayne Morse, even aging Ernest Gruening from Alaska. And they beat him to a pulp in 1968. Until Richard Nixon beat all of them that same year. (Then, they beat him up in return in 1973, after he had won his second term in the biggest trashing of a Democratic candidate in history. Poor George McGovern, an old Stalinoid and still one, so far as I can tell, captured only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Not bad, actually, for someone sympathetic to “progressive” dictatorships.)
No one, however, is more haughty than Obama in his made-up history, in his Saidist attitudes to facts, in his disdain for true and tested allies, in his ignorance of economics, in his indifference to the West (and to Christianity, for that matter) as an ideal and a reality, and finally, in his allergy to the thought that lui-même might be limited in wisdom, experience, instinct, even—as we have seen—in the power to persuade. Yes, we can? No, we can’t.
On the other hand, at least until the day before yesterday, he seemed ready to genuflect not only to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia but to Putin and Medvedev, to the Chinese, to the Turks, to the Syrians, to the Venezuelans and Brazilians (and Hillary to the Argentine, the most corrupt regime in Latin America.) As for Africa and the Africans (and their near-universal agonies), he couldn’t care less. (Although Mrs. Clinton gives speeches about rape in Congo, and please understand that these are urgent speeches, very urgent.)
Indonesia is a place of memory for the president, and from reading Dreams From My Father, I gather that his bank of imagery and retrospection must be a troubling one. For him, to be sure. It was for me too, in fact. But that’s another matter. My guess, then, is that for this cool, oh, so cool president, Indonesia must be a storehouse of contradiction. And that his confidence in addressing its people is much based on fancy.
The fact is that Obama did not do especially well in addressing the Indonesians as Muslims. “Jakarta sees no breakthrough in Obama’s speech,” read the headline in the New York Times report by Norimitsu Onishi. But here is more:
"Many people had been expecting that he would address one of the stumbling blocks to the peace process, like Israel’s construction of new housing,” Mr. Azra added.
Mixing the personal, political and religious, Mr. Obama spoke of Indonesia’s history of religious tolerance and its commitment to democracy and diversity before a receptive audience of 6,500 mostly young people at the University of Indonesia. In a 30-minute speech, the president underscored the shared values between the United States and Indonesia, which is known for its tradition of moderate Islam.
Mr. Obama spoke about hearing the “call to prayer across Jakarta,” where he lived for four years as a boy. He referred several times to his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, who, he said, “was raised a Muslim” but “firmly believed that all religions were worthy of respect.”
But he quickly remedied this omission. And, as almost everyone knows by now, he immediately criticized Israel for making plans to build additional housing in East Jerusalem. Obama actually is fixated on this matter although everybody knows—yes, American diplomats know and European Community functionaries know and any and all realistic Arab public persons also know—that Jerusalem will not be re-divided according to Palestinian dreams. The princely line of Jordan, which has a certain religious authority over the Haram al-Sharif because of its descent from the Prophet, implicitly acknowledged this when Amman made peace with Israel. And so did Egypt.
I believe there will be awkward but porous lines drawn when (and if) Jerusalem is finally discussed at the conference table. But the Israeli stamp on the future of the city cannot be erased. Nor should it: this is the price the Arabs are paying for their long decades of rejectionism. Still, do not think that the Palestinians fail to exploit opportunities as they have in changing Jerusalem realities.
An ironic one is that Arabs from the West Bank are continually making themselves residents of Jerusalem. This is a part of the demographic pressure on the city. But the irony is that they are leaving territories that will soon be Palestine to live in a city they expect (and truly hope) will be Israeli. Of course, the Palestinian Arabs want a Palestine to be established. But if they have a choice they’d rather live in Israel. You might think that given the national Palestinian upsurge among Israeli Arabs that they would crave to live in Palestine. In fact, some Zionists want to surrender the land on which these Arabs live precisely to Palestine. They are no takers.
A different form of sub rosa Palestinian change in the demography of Jerusalem is the influx of Arabs from Hebron, a result of bitter struggles among clans and political groupings. (This is something, thank God, which we cannot blame on Hebron’s fanatic Jews.) Most of these Arabs moved to the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem where they build housing for which no plans have been made, and they build them without electricity or running water or, for that matter, toilet facilities. It is mostly these Arabs for whom the mayor of the city, my friend Nir Barkat, has helped develop a scheme, designed by Palestinian city planners and architects, that would settle them in new and modern housing. They prefer to stay in fetid Silwan.
(The other day I walked down the almost miraculous water shaft from the City of David to the Siloam Pool where Jesus performed his miracles of making the blind see. It is a moving site even if you don’t quite believe the tales. But I and my companions were not permitted to walk at the edge of the valley abutting the pool; no one is. You might be targeted from Silwan.)
A more modest president than Obama might realize that he cannot impose his simple moralistic rhetoric on the intricate history of Jerusalem. There may be something in its complexity that appeals to his delusion of being able by sweeping judgment to set things aright.
This is the trap Obama has set himself, and he set it in Cairo 17 months ago.
Mr. Obama talked about the “issues that have caused tensions for many years,” mentioning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He said that the United States had made “some progress” in those areas since Mr. Obama gave his first speech on the United States and Islam 17 months in Cairo.
But Din Syamsuddin, the head of Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organizations, said the president offered nothing fresh here.
“His speech in Cairo raised a lot of hopes, but his speech today was repetitive and redundant,” Mr. Din said.
Anis Matta, the secretary general of the Prosperous Justice Party, Indonesia’s biggest Islamist political party, said that Mr. Obama’s outreach to Muslims here and elsewhere would be influenced by a single issue.
“What will Obama do in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” Mr. Matta said. “If we don’t see any progress, what he says is just a speech.”
Some experts said Mr. Obama’s premise of reaching out to the wider Muslim world by showing that the United States and Indonesia share values was flawed. Despite the big population of Muslims here, Indonesia’s influence has never extended beyond Southeast Asia.
“Of course, Indonesia does have a seat in the Muslim world, but to what extent it can influence political processes in the Muslim world’s heartland is a big question,” said Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy-oriented group in Jakarta. “Basically, we are not perceived as sitting at the main table in the Muslim world.”
Becoming the United States’ model Muslim democracy also made some Indonesians uneasy.
“The U.S. is trying to use Indonesia as an arena from where it could rebuild its relations with the Muslim world, but that’s dangerous,” said Bantarto Bandoro, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia. “Indonesia might be seen as being co-opted by the United States.”
In his speech, Mr. Obama won fans with stories about growing up in a Jakarta that existed before most of the audience members were born. “Indonesia is a part of me,” he said, doubling the effect by delivering the line in Indonesian.
Harish Muhammad, 18, a computer science major, said he had always believed that the United States was “anti-Islam” but that Mr. Obama had made him rethink his assumptions.
Others remained skeptical, however.
“Obama talked about how Indonesia is part of him,” said Agustina Retnaningsih, 37, a graduate student in pharmacology. “But it makes me wonder: Which part? Where do you put Indonesia and Islam in you and your policy?”
Obama’s mind speaks in a few iconic words. But they are simple words. Alas, the world—and especially the Muslim world—demands something more: it is struggle. Obama does not struggle with thought.