Obama’s Indonesia Fan Base

In the crumbling living rooms of middle-class Jakarta, men and women who once knew Barack Obama have claimed him as their own, a neighborhood boy made good. Obama has a fan, too, in Indonesia's minister of defense, Juwono Sudarsono, the first civilian to be appointed to the post. Educated at Berkeley and the London School of Economics, Sudarsono is a soft-spoken intellectual who has held posts under every Indonesian president since Suharto. Last Friday, the day after he met with U.S. Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Sudarsono talked with NEWSWEEK'S Erika Kinetz about what an Obama presidency might mean for the world at large, and for the warming military relations between Indonesia and the United States, which ended congressional restrictions on military funding to Jakarta in 2005. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do you think an Obama presidency would affect U.S.-Indonesia relations?
Juwono Sudarsono:
Symbolically it would be very, very important for us, as it would be for the whole Asian [and] African continents. If Obama is elected as president, I think it would reignite the United States as the real light star of hope—that it symbolizes a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious nation. That's the most important aspect, the symbolism of it. Translating it into American foreign policy will be much more difficult.

What would the biggest challenge be?
Domestic performance. The credibility of a foreign policy rests on the domestic performance of a country. As the largest Muslim country—but not an Islamic state—our biggest challenge is to deliver on our promises at home to be credible abroad. The so-called Muslim moderate promise actually depends on how we deliver on promises at home, on how we provide outreach to the Muslim poor so they will not be attracted to radical ideologies, be it secular or religious.

In 2006, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Indonesia, you spoke about America's overbearing foreign policy. How is America doing now?
I think I was misquoted at that time. I did say structurally the United States is too powerful, so, like it or not, the United States will be seen as overbearing everywhere, especially in Muslim countries, because [the United States] represents the epitome of what other countries are not. You [the United States] are white. You are Christian. You are rich. Your technology is superior. All of these countries are not … It's a phenomenon Americans cannot understand.

If you could vote as part of the American global polity, who would you vote for?
Right now? I would vote for Obama. I think he has this message of decency, of fairness, of transcending racial hatred, which cuts across all countries, all nations.

U.S. policy in terms of military relations in Southeast Asia has changed in the last few years. This upsets human rights groups that have negative things to say about the Indonesian military. [Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, say the Indonesian military is guilty of human rights abuses.]
We've been able to persuade liberal congressmen that just to be against a country because of its military dominance domestically—whether it's Indonesia, Cambodia, or now in Pakistan, or in Egypt—can be detrimental to long-term U.S. interests … The real issue is can the country be governed effectively. In many cases, particularly in Third World countries, the only institution that can run the country is the military. But this is anathema to the precepts of liberal democracy … I think [Obama] would understand that a liberal democracy needs a certain degree of economic well-being.
How did your visit with Adm. Keating go?
Our focus is on Hercules transport C-130 [aircraft]. That's the most strategic and important equipment we need. It's not only for troop movements. It provides immediate rescue to troubled areas as a result of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods. The U.S. has provided more of the spare parts for these transport planes. They also provided spares for some of our F-16s which we bought 15 years ago … We have reinstated IMET—international military education and training. We need more and more captains and majors trained in the U.S. so in time they will become leaders of the military and maybe in time become minister of defense … At the moment we are only getting about $16 million a year. It's peanuts. But that's the balance of political forces in [the U.S.] Congress. We are still suffering from this overhang of this image of the cruel military of the past, of military suppression during the Suharto years.

The United States restricted military ties with Indonesia until 2005, in part, because of alleged Indonesian human rights violations in East Timor. The military leaders of that action have all gotten off. Just a week ago your supreme court overturned the sentence of Eurico Guterres, a notorious militia leader.
The important thing was we did this on our own terms. Judgment was not going to be sent to Geneva or the Hague … We had this Commission on Truth and Friendship we established between East Timor and Indonesia, which just released its findings. This was the way we wanted to resolve the issue. This was sufficient. Of course, it was not sufficient for the NGOs in Washington and Geneva.

What is the biggest challenge to America's image abroad?
Ultimately, it's domestic performance. If there is a fairer America, as symbolized by this hope given by Obama, it will do a lot of good. If you treat your own citizens, especially your minorities, much better it will create a much more important message than anything the secretary of state or the president of the United States talks about. I gave up on diplomacy when I was ambassador in Britain. The real diplomacy was being done by bankers and traders. The embassy was just a post office.

Barack Obama has a real fan base in some middle-class Indonesian households. What do you think would change from having that experience in the White House?
As I read from his books, I would hope that would create a sense of mission. That things can be improved. I would hope he would create the terms and conditions of a more perfect union … The United States has replaced Great Britain as the power where the sun never sets. Now the sun never sets on the back of the American GI. They are everywhere across the world. You have a $550 billion defense budget, which is equal to our GDP. My yearly defense budget is your defense budget maybe for one day and a half.

So you want to be friends with America, then?
I would like to engage Indonesians, particularly poor Muslims, that under Obama, America will be a much better force for good for the world. That its size, reach, economic and political influence can provide hope … If he wins, it would create an optimism among Indonesians, particularly minorities, that perhaps in the next 10 to 15 years there can be a non-Javanese president in Indonesia. It's doable.

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