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Back in Indonesia, Obama Looks to Strengthen U.S. Ties With Muslim World

November 9, 2010 at 4:13 PM EDT
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President Obama returned to Indonesia, where he spent a portion of his childhood, encouraging the U.S. to build stronger ties with the most populous Muslim nation in the world without focusing solely on security. Margret Warner has more.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama spent this day in the capital of Indonesia looking to build up ties with that heavily Muslim nation. Margaret Warner narrates our report.

MARGARET WARNER: After two earlier postponements, Mr. Obama finally arrived in Jakarta today for a visit scheduled to last less than 24 hours.

But it was cut even shorter by an approaching cloud of volcanic ash from Mount Merapi, an ash that can destroy jet engines. Still, it was a sumptuous welcome. The president and first lady were greeted at the state palace by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a full military honor guard.

And, at a news conference later, Mr. Obama spoke fondly of his four years in Indonesia as a young boy in the late 1960s. He noted how much the country has changed since then.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: People were on becaks — which for those of you who aren’t familiar, is sort of a bicycle, rickshaw thing. And, if they weren’t on becaks, they were on bemos, which were…


BARACK OBAMA: They were sort of like little taxis, but you stood in the back, and it was very crowded. And now, as president, I can’t even see any traffic because they block off all the streets…


BARACK OBAMA: … although my understanding is that Jakarta traffic is pretty tough.

MARGARET WARNER: Indonesia is a huge, sprawling nation, the world’s fourth most populous. Nearly 240 million people live on its more than 17,000 islands, which stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific (on camera):

The majority-Muslim nation has suffered its share of terror attacks, spectacular ones like the Bali nightclub bombing and others. But the president said there is much more to talk about with Indonesia and its citizens.

BARACK OBAMA: What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we are building bridges and expanding our interactions with Muslim countries, so that they’re not solely focused on security issues, because you come to a place like Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim population in the world, but people here have a lot of other interests, other than security.

MARGARET WARNER: Among those interests, says Karen Brooks, an international business consultant specializing in Asia, are the economic and trade prospects Indonesia offers the U.S.

KAREN BROOKS, International Business Consultant: On the economic front, Indonesia is a huge market, potential market, for the United States. We are currently the fourth largest trading partner with Indonesia, behind Japan, China, and Singapore. We can and should be doing better. Unlike most of its neighbors, which are export-driven, Indonesia’s growth is largely consumption-led. Sixty percent of the Indonesian economy is based on domestic demand.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if President Obama wanted to make this trip about job promotion, export promotion, Indonesia is a good candidate?

KAREN BROOKS: Indonesia is definitely a good candidate for increasing U.S. exports to the Asia Pacific, again, by virtue of the fact that Indonesia’s growth, which has averaged over 5 percent over the course of the past decade, and including 4.5 percent growth even at the height of the recent global financial crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama today also spoke of wanting closer relations with the recently democratized Indonesia on regional issues and the security front.

But the U.S. has to walk a delicate line when it comes to cooperating with the Indonesian military, which supported a dictatorship until just 12 years ago, and is still accused of human rights violations.

KAREN BROOKS: There is no question that the United States has to strike a balance between needed engagement with the Indonesian security forces for issues of terrorism, again, for issues of shared geostrategic aims in the region and beyond, while at the same time encouraging the continued reform of the Indonesian armed forces at home.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: This evening, at a dinner with his hosts, Mr. Obama sought to describe the overall U.S.-Indonesian relationship by invoking an old proverb.

BARACK OBAMA: Our two nations are fortunate that we are forging a partnership for the 21st century. And, as we go forward, I’m reminded of a proverb: Bagai aur dengan tebing. Like bamboo and the riverbank, we rely on each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow, the president is scheduled to deliver a major speech in Jakarta focusing on Indonesia’s democratic progress and what that means for the Muslim world.