The first couple has wrapped up the first stop of their 10-day, four country tour of Asia. After spending three full days in India, the Obamas are expected to travel Tuesday morning from New Delhi to Jakarta, Indonesia.
The White House was peppered with questions about the president's travel schedule all wekeend, following reports that Mount Merapi, which has been erupting for the last two weeks and killed as many as 140 people, was still issuing explosive roars Monday.
"This has been the most popular question -- it is -- understandably so," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon, noting the White House has been monitoring the situation closely. "The modeling leads us to think that it's a stop that we can and will do. So the schedule is unchanged. Obviously there's a lot of monitoring going on to see if any of those events might change that. But as of this point, we continue to monitor but we are planning for and assume we will go to Indonesia tomorrow."The president and first family were originally scheduled to visit the archipelago back in March, but the trip was delayed initially by three days - only to then be postponed by three months - so the White House and Capitol Hill had more time to address the health care legislation debate. But by the time the trip was to happen in June, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico commanded much of the president's attention and the travel to Indonesia, Australia and Guam, was once again postponed.
Of those three previously scheduled stops, only Indonesia remains on this trip's itinerary, and while it is a truncated visit, the White House says Mr. Obama is excited to go. "The president is very much looking forward to this opportunity to fulfill his commitment to go to Indonesia this year," said Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.
Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, is the third largest democracy, a member of the G20, and the incoming chair for The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and has the largest Muslim majority population.
This will be President Obama's first trip to a Muslim majority country since he was in Egypt June of last year where he delivered his Cairo speech focused on U.S.-Muslim relations. "We see in Indonesia the intersection of a lot of key American interests and we see this as a partnership that is very important to the future of American interests in Asia and the world, " said Rhodes. According to the White House, the president will highlight Indonesia as a positive example of a committed partner with a strong democracy, a modern Islamic people, and a growing economy, and we can anticipate the president to speak to some of the progress that has been made since his Cairo speech.
But some experts say many in the Muslim world feel nearly a year and a half after his Cairo remarks, the president's speech was merely that - remarks. "The problem you run into, from the stand point of Muslims, if it doesn't look like policy is changing, the rhetoric won't get you very far," said Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute in Washington. Bandow argues many Muslims thought the President's June '09 remarks foreshadowed policy change - in Afghanistan and in Israeli relations. "What people in the Muslim world are looking for is substance. If they perceive the underlying policy not changing, well, I'm not sure how he [President Obama] gets around that,' said Bandow, who noted the White House may use the Indonesia trip as a "re-set" moment for U.S.-Muslim relations.
This will be the first time President Obama has returned to Indonesia since he lived there for four years as a young boy. The president is not scheduled to visit either his childhood home or school while he's in Indonesia.
But don't be surprised if you hear Mr. Obama speak a few phrases in Indonesia's official language, Bahasa. The president has apparently used some of his language skills in previous meetings and conversations with the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is also known as, and referred to as SBY.
On Tuesday, his first day in Indonesia, President Obama will meet with President Yudhoyono after which they will participate in a press conference and an official dinner at the presidential palace. On Wednesday, President Obama awakes in Jakarta to a major national holiday in Indonesia known as Heroes Day - the anniversary of a key battle between Indonesia and British forces, just months after Indonesia's Proclamation of Independence. The president will lay a wreath at Heroes Cemetery after he visits the Istiqlal Mosque - which is Arabic for "independence". Istiqlal is the national mosque of Indonesia and the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.
Of course, there are those who believe President Obama, a Christian, is actually Muslim, so his visit to Istiqlal - his second visit to a mosque since becoming president (the first was to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in the spring of last year) will be watched not just by those in Indonesia, but likely back in the U.S. as well. "If he's trying to reset relations with the Muslim world, one way to do that is visit their mosque," said Bandow. "But there is a political aspect at home," said Bandow who noted not just the misnomer that the president is Muslim, but the criticism Mr. Obama faced after visiting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah when he appeared to have bowed before the monarch. "Does he avoid anything that may be seen in the U.S. as submissive," Bandow poses, "and will be trying to counter act that?"
"He's going to do it really well," offers Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, noting the visit to Istiqlal is going to come off as a "continuation of the Cairo themes, but this time with the largest moderate Muslim population in the world."
Some of those themes will again be addressed later that very day when Mr. Obama delivers his "major speech" in Jakarta. According to the White House "in that speech he'll have a chance talk about the partnership that we're building with Indonesia, but also to talk about some of the themes of democracy and development and our outreach to Muslim communities around the world, while also speaking of Indonesia's pluralism and tolerance as well."
'Tolerance' may be questioned during the Indonesia trip, with reports of intimidation, harassment and increased violence against Christians - who make up about 9 percent of the population in Indonesia - as well as a YouTube video posted last month depicting the torture of two Papuans at the hands of Indonesian soldiers. President Yudhoyono told a news conference in the capital Jakarta on Monday that an investigation had been completed and a military court would meet in the "near" future.
"Let's prove that it was not a state policy, there were mistakes and should be punishment," Yudhoyono said, adding that such mistakes could have happened in many countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. And emphasizing Indonesia's democratic process added, "The trial must be fair and transparent...All are equal before the law," the president said, himself a former four-star general who experts say has been largely successful in cleaning up the image of the armed forces since taking power six years ago.
Experts say the trip to Indonesia is not as much about the US's current relationship with the archipelago as it is about the future. "At the moment, given the current issues, Indonesia is not that important," said Bandow. But, "when you look at the potential, it matters." Bower agrees. "Getting it right with Indonesia is sort of understatement with longer term American engagement in Asia," Bower said, noting Indonesia's size and population, as well as its economic development and democratic success. "Asia is going to be the source of global economic growth for the next decade and beyond. Tapping into that dynamism is vital for sustained recovery in the United States," said Bower.