In India, Then Onto Indonesia

The president’s Asia trip is an excellent opportunity to reassert America’s image and leadership in that part of the world.

After his party suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in the midterm elections for Congress, one would hope for President Barack Obama to be able to recuperate with a nice vacation. No president likes losing, especially when the margin of defeat is so high. For Obama, who campaigned on a platform of change just two years ago, a new Republican majority is particularly disheartening.

But if the president was kicked to the floor last week, he has an ample opportunity to pick himself up and dust himself off over the next ten days. As is widely reported on this fine blog and in every major American newspaper, Obama has finally begun his tour of Asia. India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea are the four big countries on the White House docket, but Obama will also speak to Chinese president Hu Jintao and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev at the G20 summit in Seoul later in the week.

While the entire trip is indeed important — this is the chance for the United States to reassert its image with its Southeast Asian allies who are nervous about a rising Chinese military power — it is the individual meetings in India and Indonesia that could boast the greatest gains for America’s image.

As soon as he stepped off the plane, Obama met with Indian leaders on a range of issues. The trip is only three days old, but the president has already stressed the importance of a long-term Indo-American economic relationship to Indian business leaders. That meeting also included the promotion of a $10 billion trade deal which Washington hopes will spur the Indo-American relationship in a positive direction. On a symbolic note, Obama and his staff are staying at the infamous Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, the tragic site of a terrorist attack in 2008 when Pakistani militants opened fire, killing over 160 people.

But perhaps more significant than the president’s early accomplishments is what he hopes to achieve in the remainder of his trip. While Pakistan may not formally be on the agenda, the American and Indian governments will probably discuss the domestic troubles unleashed in that country behind closed doors, away from reporters. This may seem like a superficial topic, given India’s constant mistrust of Pakistan, but it is a subject that must be broached constructively. The Indians need to understand that the weakness of the Pakistani state obstructs Islamabad’s ability to tackle each and every anti-Indian militant group. Yet at the same time, the Americans need to understand where the Indian government is coming from.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country and the world’s latest emerging democracy, will also embrace Obama for the first time in his presidency. The president spent four years as a young boy in Indonesia, so it will interesting to see whether he can tout his personal experience to his advantage.

This part of the trip is perhaps the best opportunity the United States will have in the foreseeable future to show Muslims what America is all about: individual rights, respect for all cultures, tolerance. Obama’s approval ratings in the Muslim world have been declining since his Cairo speech in 2009, but that could change with a heartfelt address to the world’s largest Muslim nation.

These are all preliminary at the moment. The Asian tour has only lasted for three days so far. The next seven will make or break the trip.