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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Next stop on Obama's Asia tour: Indonesia



President Barack Obama is finally making it to Indonesia, his home for four years of his youth. His quick stop in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, an increasingly important player in Asia, will allow him to speak to the values of democracy and religious tolerance and reflect on his time here as a boy.

Twice previously, domestic issues forced last-minute cancellations of planned presidential trips to Indonesia, first because of negotiations on the health care bill and then because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

This visit briefly looked imperiled, too, when volcanic ash forced flight cancellations to Jakarta over the past several days. White House officials monitored the situation carefully before deciding it was safe for the president and First Lady Michelle Obama to make the trip here from India. They're scheduled to arrive in Jakarta late afternoon local time on Tuesday.

Obama will spend less than 24 hours in this nation of 250 million people, which is made up of a string of islands stretched through the Indian Ocean between Australia and Malaysia. Touring Asia for 10 jam-packed days, he's shoehorning the visit in between the three days he spent in India and economic meetings in South Korea andJapan that start Thursday.

The U.S. has increasingly embraced Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation and partner in counter-terror efforts in the wake of attacks in Bali, Jakarta and elsewhere in the region between 2002 and 2005. Like India, Indonesia is also seen as a counterweight to China's gathering strength.

After his arrival Tuesday, Obama will meet with Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The two leaders will hold a joint press conference and in the evening the president and first lady will be feted at an official dinner at the state palace complex.

"Lots of U.S. interests and lots of challenges and opportunities intersect in Indonesia," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Monday.

"The president will be able to speak to the positive example that Indonesia sets ... as a country with a thriving Islamic community, but also a country that has a pluralistic tradition."

Obama's abbreviated schedule doesn't allow time for him to visit childhood haunts, but he intends to speak to his personal biography when he addresses a large crowd at the University of Indonesia on Wednesday. The future president moved to Jakarta when he was 6, after his divorced mother remarried an Indonesian, and lived here until he was 10.

Obama's stepfather was Muslim, and during his time in Indonesia Obama occasionally studied the Quran and visited a local mosque. Although Obama is Christian, that background helped foster enduring rumors in the U.S. about the president's religion.

Planning for Obama's Asia trip featured a religious controversy when the president opted not to visit the Golden Temple Sikh holy site in India, spawning rumors that he wanted to avoid wearing a head covering that could make him appear Muslim. In Jakarta the president plans to visit the giant Istqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and a popular tourist attraction.

The president will conclude his Indonesia visit with a wreath-laying at Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, the burial site of veterans of the Indonesian National Revolution, somewhat equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

Obama departs Jakarta for Seoul early Wednesday afternoon for a summit of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations.

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