In his much-anticipated address in Jakarta today, President Obama didn’t offer the rhetorical breadth or ambition of the landmark speech he made to the Muslim world in Cairo last year.
Today’s speech at the University of Indonesia was framed by the White House as a follow-up to the Cairo address where, in the heart of the Arab Muslim world, he was notably candid about U.S. missteps in relations with Islamic nations.
In Jakarta, Obama insisted that much progress has been made toward repairing frayed relations between the United States and the Muslim countries, but he did so before an audience that didn't need convincing.
To the United States, Indonesia is a kind of Islamic ideal — pluralistic, economically ambitious, and like-minded in countering terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.
That's in marked contrast to the regions of the Islamic world that are at the top of the president's national security agenda: Obama told his Indonesian audience that he’s ending an unpopular war in Iraq, has redoubled efforts to build peace in Afghanistan, and has restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
But Iraq remains politically volatile; Afghanistan is intolerably violent, and Middle East peace talks are on the precipice of collapse.
“There should be no illusions that peace and security will come easy,” Obama acknowledged.
In the 17 months since Cairo, Obama’s credibility in the Muslim world — particularly in Arab nations — has nosedived.
Before the Cairo visit, 51 percent of respondents in six Middle East countries expressed optimism about American policy in the region, according to a Brookings Institution/Zogby International poll.
A follow-up survey published in August found that only 16 percent were hopeful; 63 percent described themselves as discouraged. Only 20 percent of respondents said they had a positive view of Obama in the August poll, compared to 45 percent in the 2009 survey.
The reasons for disillusion in the Middle East — and the Muslim world writ large — are many. Obama has failed to close Guantanamo Bay. Stepped up drone strikes in northern Pakistan targeting the Taliban have tested the Pakistan government’s patience. And the Arab street feels the president hasn’t put enough pressure on Israel to halt new settlements in East Jerusalem.
“Not very much [progress] has been made,” said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. “I think Arabs started with exaggerated expectations of Obama. What you see now is part of the inevitable letdown. He’s not achieved very much.”
It's not necessarily for lack of trying: Closing Guantanamo was complicated by domestic political opposition. Ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will take time. And the president doesn’t have a magic wand to end decades of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians.
Arguably, the southeast Asian country of Indonesia was one of few predominantly Muslim nations where Obama could have pulled off his follow-up speech.
The president has a deeply personal connection to the country. He spent four years of his childhood in Jakarta — years that left an indelible impression on him. In his speech, he recalled the small house he lived in with a mango tree out front, and carefree days of flying kites and catching dragonflies with his childhood friends.
His mother married an Indonesian named Lolo Soetero, a Muslim who served in the nation’s army. And Obama’s sister, Maya, was born in Indonesia. “Indonesia is part of me,” Obama told the audience.
But Indonesia is geographically and psychologically worlds away from Obama’s Muslim world problem. The relatively prosperous and moderate nation shares few of the anti-American resentments and stereotypes that Obama still has yet to overcome elsewhere.
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security advisor under President George W. Bush, said Obama set unclear expectations from the start of his administration.
“The challenge for the Obama administration was to portray the change in a way that was commensurate with our national security interests, and I think that message got lost in translation,” said Zarate, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “What he has failed to do is challenge Muslim communities to say: ‘This is really not about the United States. It’s more about what’s happening internally in our countries.’”
What’s certain is that the U.S. reputation in the Muslim world remains complicated by mistrust. No single speech, as the president told his Jakarta audience, is going to change that.