Writing the World: Why Indonesia’s View of the American Presidency is Important

A year ago, when Imam Cahyono and I reported from Jakarta on George W. Bush’s meeting with Indonesian President Yudyohono, the animosity towards the American presidency and the policies it represented permeated the air. A year later, however, the American presidential race seems to have captured the Indonesian imagination, however. Indonesians are paying attention to American politics with a sense of optimism, and that matters.

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This generation of Indonesians and Americans have more in common than they may know. Both consider themselves members of vibrant democracies, and neither hesitates to critique what they see as the faults in their respective systems. As religiously and ethnically pluralist societies that have chosen to live in democratic systems, they both face the challenge of uniting in the face of difference – this is recognized in both places as social bonds are continually tested. America is more divided than ever, Indonesia confronts massive economic disparities, and a rising tide of fundamentalism threatens both countries.

It is a generation that has its foot inextricably in the door of a globally connected world, a generation that has grown up during times of unprecedented change, a time of hyper-globalization that is reshaping global relations. There is hope, there is cynicism, but perhaps more than anything there is a degree of anxiety about where the world is heading and the individual’s capacity to do anything about it.

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In the case of Indonesia, that anxiety becomes especially acute when it comes to the country’s relationship with the United States. Americans’ failure to recognize the importance of their relationship with Indonesia is troubling, however. Americans need to be concerned about the anger that so many Indonesians expressed a year ago, as hundreds of thousands of chanting Indonesians of all sorts, carrying signs like “Bush = #1 Terrorist,” met the American president when he arrived at the Presidential Palace. That said, the excitement in Indonesia over possible change in America should also be important in the minds of people in the US.

Barack Obama’s autobiography was recently translated into the Indonesian language, and many Indonesians view Obama not only as a phenomenon but as a candidate that has a very real chance of winning. The anger over ongoing American policies still exists, but it is certainly not a blind anger towards the Western superpower. I spoke with Dila, a young woman working in a Jakarta restaurant, recently. She says that Obama is an American, but his family is from “around the world.” His mother was at one point married to a Muslim Indonesian, and Mr. Obama spent several years of his childhood living in an affluent neighborhood in the capital city. Dila says that, “untuk Saya,” “for me,” if you have lived in different in culture, you are more capable of getting along with, understanding, and respecting those that are different.

Indonesia, like the United States, is preparing for an important presidential election, which will take place in 2009. Many are critical of the failure of the main political parties to develop viable new leadership, let alone new ideas. Names like Gus Dur, Megawati,

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