Mr. Obama’s First Trip

December 15, 2008

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that in the first 100 days of his administration he would “travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle.”

Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have been suggested as possible sites for such a speech. But the best candidate is the country in which Mr. Obama lived as a child: Indonesia.

Choosing Indonesia would throw light on the diversity and richness of Islam, which is not, contrary to lingering perceptions, practiced solely by Arabs or only in the Middle East. The country, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, does a reasonable job of managing its considerable religious heterogeneity. Going there would help Mr. Obama to reframe the debate in the West about Islam and terrorism.

An Indonesian audience would also make sense. Indonesians have been both victims and perpetrators of terrorist attacks, including the deadly Bali bombings. The government in Jakarta is an important partner in the effort against terrorism.

Selecting Indonesia would demonstrate that Mr. Obama takes democracy seriously, given that Indonesia is a rowdy democracy — the third-largest in the world. It would show that President Bush’s misshapen democratization agenda has not turned his successor into an icy realist.

Reminding the world of Mr. Obama’s origins could help counter anti-Americanism. Who would have thought the United States would elect a president with memories of wandering barefoot through rice paddies and “the muezzin’s call at night”?

Finally, a trip to Indonesia would indicate that Mr. Obama was serious about rebalancing America’s foreign policy. It would show that he understands the shift of global power eastward, and telegraph that Washington was finally going to take the nation — the linchpin of Southeast Asia — seriously.

Mr. Obama was criticized in the campaign as offering speeches rather than solutions. Cynics will say this time that you can’t fight terrorism with cue cards. But there is no better way to make an argument than with a speech — and for this speech, there is no better place to make that argument than Indonesia.