The World

The Six Most Terrifying Words in American Politics: The President Is Going to Indonesia

A statue of President Obama when he was 10 years old is placed in Taman Menteng in Jakarta on Dec. 10, 2009. The statue stands in Indonesia’s capital in a neighborhood where “Little Barry” lived and went to school.

Photo by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

Given its growing economy, increasing regional clout, and President Obama’s personal connections to the country, Indonesia might have seemed like an ideal target for outreach by the administration. The only problem is that the president seems to have an exceptionally hard time getting there. In fact, planned Obama trips to Indonesia tends to be pretty good indicators that a major domestic political crisis is imminent.

In March 2010, Obama postponed a trip to Indonesia and Australia for a few days, and then for a few months during the final push for passage of the Affordable Care Act. That June he postponed it again during the BP oil spill. When he did finally make it to Indonesia in November, he had to cut his trip short because of fears of ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi.

A November 2011 trip to the ASEAN Summit in Bali was less eventful, but now it seems the Indonesia curse has struck again, with Obama canceling plans to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali and the ASEAN summit in Brunei next week, due to the government shutdown. Planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines were canceled earlier this week.

Joking aside, Obama’s difficulty in finding time to visit Indonesia highlights one of the problems with the administration’s stated plan to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia—the so-called pivot. The White House clearly cares about deepening economic relationships in Asia—negotiations over the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement will dominate the Bali talks, where the U.S. will now be represented by Secretary of State John Kerry—as well as countering growing Chinese influence in the region.

But unlike in the Middle East, things tend not be blowing up on a daily basis in East Asia. U.S. priorities in the region are on a longer timescale, and as such, tend to be pushed to the side when there are more immediate matters to deal with. In the long run, this is probably good news for Beijing.