Has US president Barack Obama fulfilled the promises he made during his “address to the Muslim world” 18 months ago?
|Obama and Yudhoyono signed a ‘comprehensive partnership’ which covers security and economic issues [AFP]|
Barack Obama, the US president, has said he is making progress towards ending the mistrust between Muslim countries and the United States, but that the effort is incomplete.
Obama flew from India to Indonesia, his former boyhood home, on Tuesday for the second leg of his 10-day Asia trip.
At a joint news conference with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, Obama said his efforts to improve the relationship between Muslims and the West had been “earnest” and “sustained”.
However, he said the progress was “incomplete” and there was more work to do.
Obama also said he did not think “we’re going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust”.
The president said he wanted to make sure the US is “building bridges and expanding our interactions with Muslim countries”.
During their meeting in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, Obama and Yudhoyono signed a “comprehensive partnership” that they had agreed to a year ago, including co-operation on economic and security issues.
Though religious extremism often dominates the tensions between the Muslim world and the West, Obama said the relationship must expand beyond security issues.
At the news conference, Obama also criticised Israel’s plans to build about 1,300 new apartments in disputed East Jerusalem.
“This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” Obama said.
Homecoming of sorts
Obama spent four years in Indonesia as a boy after his mother married an Indonesian man, and his return was highly anticipated.
“‘Barry’ to Return Home,” reported The Jakarta Post newspaper on Tuesday referring to the president’s nickname, while the Koran Tempo declared: “Finally He’s Here.”
Obama had to cancel two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year, as domestic crises arose in March as he fought to pass his healthcare law, and in June as he faced the clean up of the massive Gulf oil spill.
A few days ago, Obama’s visit was in doubt once more, after volcanic ash from Mount Merapi raised fears that Air Force One, the president’s aircraft, would be unable to reach Jakarta.
But international flights returned to normal on Tuesday, and the White House gave the green light for the visit.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, told reporters that the volcanic ash could force Obama to shorten his whirlwind visit.
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Obama had originally planned to visit his childhood haunts, but given his diminished political position following midterm elections, analysts said a prolonged nostalgic visit would be politically ill-advised.
However, he is expected in Indonesia again next year, as the first US president to participate in the East Asia summit.
The US president will also visit South East Asia’s largest mosque – the Istiqlal – and give an open-air speech to the Indonesian people on Wednesday.
US officials say that, like Obama’s trip to India, his Indonesia visit should reinvigorate relations with an “inspiring” emerging democracy and an economy with a crucial 21st century role.
“We’ve had this focus on Asia and on emerging powers and on democracies as kind of cornerstones of the kind of strategic orientation of the United States in the 21st century,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and Obama speechwriter.
“India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia,” Rhodes said.
Obama’s Jakarta speech on Wednesday has the dual aim of engaging Indonesians on their embrace of democracy and economic growth, and of renewing the dialogue with Muslims opened at his landmark Cairo address in June 2009.
The speech will be Obama’s most high-profile opportunity for discourse on US relations with the Islamic world in a foreign country since his speech in the Egyptian capital.
But officials cautioned against the idea that Obama would highlight his commitment to a “new beginning” with Islam, after a row over plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York.