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Deciphering presidential touchdowns

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COMMENTS

18 March 2010 11:09

Indonesia and Australia stand equal in the number of US presidential touchdowns on their soil over the last 50 years — each has six. More on those mixed half dozens in a moment.

Popes kiss the ground when their plane lands. US Presidents lay their hands on the shoulder of the leader they meet. The Pope offers a blessing. The President sends political and diplomatic messages.

The coming Obama visit to Guam, Indonesia and Australia is somewhat curtailed but the intended messages are coming into view. Stopping in Guam is, plain and simple, a nod to the Defence Department. Going to Indonesia is an expression of Obama's own life. Mark it as a White House personal-and-policy must, building on a lot of other compelling reasons for giving Indonesia more prominence.

And Australia? Perhaps Kevin Rudd's magnetism has captured Obama during their various interactions over Afghanistan, climate change and the G20. Or, more likely, the State Department and Hillary Clinton won with an argument that was part geography and part politeness. You're going all the way to Indonesia, why snub the Australians when they are virtually next door?

The first leg of the trip will give us a new Guam doctrine on the US's continuing military presence in Asia. Richard Nixon did his doctrinal dance in Guam as the US extricated itself from Vietnam. Nixon's Guam doctrine was about allies henceforth taking primary responsibility for their own defence.

The Guam doctrine that Obama will bless is made flesh in the creation of a new multi-billion dollar US military superbase. The message can be encapsulated as: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet.' Given the politics of Japan at the moment, the message could be aimed as much at Tokyo as Beijing.

Beyond the personal history of Obama in Indonesia, the White House is briefing on the visit as an expression of the view that 'America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to re-establishing that leadership.'  It's a two-part US call to Asia: our attention may have wandered but we know about our interests.

Reading that briefing, I was struck by the joining of Australia and Indonesia as twin 'middle powers' and the description of the journey as another expression of 'the changing global governance' of the 21st century. You can use phrases like that when you brief in the White House.

For both Australia and Indonesia, the Obama trip will be the seventh visit by a US President in the past 50 years. That figure suggests Australia has been doing pretty well with presidential touchdowns while Indonesia continues to strive to get due recognition for its significance. Indeed (warning: incoming cliché) Australia may well have been 'punching above its weight' in gaining presidential attention. The figures are contained here at the US State Department accounting of presidential trips. 

Australia got off to a 'flying' start with two visits by LBJ; one in 1966 to express his friendship for Prime Minister Holt and one the following year to mourn Holt's disappearance in the surf. Then there was a 25-year gap, after which Australia scored repeatedly: George H Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton in 1996, and George W Bush in both 2003 and 2007. Obama's trip to Canberra means Australia will have enjoyed a touchdown by four US presidents in a row. In the touchdown stakes, that is close to the gold standard for 'middle powers'.

Photo by Flickr user Chrislrmo, used under a Creative Commons license.

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