After three previous cancellations, U.S. President Barack Obama has finally made his long-overdue visit to Indonesia, where he lived for four years as a child. The trip provides the perfect venue to use his personal history to reset an engagement strategy with international Muslim communities that has proved strikingly deficient.
Indonesia is not only the fourth-most populous country in the world, it is also the nation with the largest Muslim population -- larger than Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria combined. Indonesians have traditionally practiced a moderate form of Islam while, more recently, also committing to modern democracy. Indonesia's strong economy quickly shrugged off the global recession and is forecast to grow 6.3 percent next year, according to the Asian Development Bank. Indonesians are proud of Obama's personal ties to their country and remember the compassionate American response to 2004's devastating tsunami. Indonesians continue to give high favorability and confidence ratings to the United States (59 percent) and Muslim Indonesians to Obama personally (65 percent), according to the Pew Research Center.
In other Muslim countries, however, disappointment with Obama reigns. His speech last year at Cairo University promised a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect. The implication was that George W. Bush's offending policies would be set right and a more sensitive nomenclature deployed. Gone were such phrases as war on terror, war of ideas, and violent Islamic extremism.
Nevertheless, only a year after the speech, Pew found that U.S. favorability in Egypt, the largest Arab country by far, had dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent -- five points lower than it was during Bush's final year in office. In Jordan, it dipped from 25 percent to 21 percent. The proportion of Muslims who felt confident in Obama fell in all seven countries polled by Pew.
A survey by Zogby International, released by the Brookings Institution in August, was even worse. In April and May 2009, 51 percent of the respondents in the six Arab countries polled expressed optimism about U.S. policy in the Middle East. A year later, the figure had dropped to 16 percent. Clearly, Arabs especially have been disillusioned by Obama's inability to make headway toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and by what they perceive as continuity between Bush's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and those of the current White House.
None of these developments should have come as a surprise. Perhaps people in the Middle East, like many Americans, feel disappointed because they were oversold on Obama's abilities or simply saw him as a blank slate on which they could write their own hopes.
Much of the blame, however, rests with Obama's strategy. His main point in Cairo was that he was breaking with the past, with no concrete admission that U.S. interests would persist and no attempt to advocate for the importance of America's presence and values in the world. His expectation was that increased popularity would translate into policy breakthroughs.