ISTANBUL — When President Obama arrived in Turkey on Sunday night, to start a symbolic two-day visit that concludes his European tour, he found a nation of Muslims looking forward to the prospect of improved relations with the United States after the tumultuous Bush years.
Ahead of Obama's arrival, several thousand demonstrators staged protests Saturday against the United States and NATO in Ankara and Istanbul. For most Turks, however, his visit is proof of his commitment to serious engagement with the Islamic world and a reflection of the new administration's desire to enhance Turkey’s role in the region.
“Turkey is very proud and happy about him choosing here. We feel that he cares about us, that he thinks Turkey is important,” said Burcu Eke, 27, a consultant at an American firm in Istanbul.
Such engagement could hardly come at a more vital time. The United States needs Turkey’s cooperation — in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with Iran and efforts to broker Middle East peace.
Obama’s visit to Turkey, the first to a Muslim country since taking office in January, is also a part of a larger “re-branding” of America’s bruised image.
“If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close,” argued Andrew Sullivan in "The Atlantic." “It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.”
So far, Sullivan’s argument seems to be holding up. A recent poll conducted by the Infakto Research Workshop company found that 39% of Turks said they trusted Obama; fewer than 10% said the same of Bush, just double the almost 5% who trusted Osama Bin Laden.
Obama is so popular that a leading Turkish bank is running an ad campaign based on an Obama look-alike and posters of him are plastered on bus stops and walls around the city. In a country known for its skepticism, such widespread popularity is hard to come by.
“We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that,” Obama said in a December newspaper interview.
Such approval is important to healing US-Turkish relations. In June, a Pew poll found that out of 47 countries, Turks had the least favorable view of the U.S. As a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Mark Parris, recently expressed it, the Bush administration left US-Turkish relations “worse than he found them”.
Both Washington and Ankara seem ready to start over.
“In the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and in matters like energy security our positions and priorities are the same. We hope that we will enter a golden age in our co-operation,” said Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser, who called Obama's visit "historic."
Still, US-Turkish relations have not yet recovered from the shock they received in 2003, when the Turkish government barred U.S. forces from invading Iraq through its territory. And despite U.S. support — highlighted by Obama’s speech to the European Union this Sunday —Turkey has still been kept out of the E.U.
There also remain two vital issues that could drive a wedge between the allies despite their best intentions: the so-called Armenian genocide and nervousness in Ankara over the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Turkey is concerned about how the U.S. will handle the massacres of Armenians that occurred as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1915. For years, Obama has called the incident "genocide" and promised to recognize it as such if elected president. Turks vehemently deny any mass killings, and Erdogan, in a speech Friday in London, again dismissed the "so-called genocide."
“It was in the past and bringing it up is just another excuse to make a fight,” said Yesim Tunc, 29, a dancer living in Istanbul. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we can get over it and think about the future?”
The recent warming of relations between Turkey and Armenia — and the rumors that they could soon announce a deal aimed at reopening their borders and restoring relations — may provide Obama with the excuse he needs to bow out of the issue gracefully.
“Obama needs a moral cover to not use the g-word because he has based his ascendancy on a kind of morality play. Now the AKP [Turkey's current ruling party] have very effectively provided him with a story that he can embrace and emerge with his dignity intact,” said David Judson, editor-in-chief of Turkish Hurriyet Daily News.
The invasion of Iraq has also long strained the friendship between the U.S. and Turkey. Turks not only opposed the war in Iraq, but grew infuriated that the U.S. was also preventing them from chasing down the PKK, the Kurdish guerilla organization that has been hiding out in northern Iraq and attaching Turkish soldiers.
Recently relations have warmed on this front when the U.S. changed their stance and began providing Turkey with not only the airspace to invade but also with intelligence to help the Turks in their fight.
With Obama’s announcement that he intends to honor the U.S.-Iraq security pact by withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of 2011, good relations on this issue are increasingly important. U.S. access to Habur Gate and Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey will be vital to this monumental logistical task.
During his visit, Obama will address the Turkish parliament — the first U.S. president to do so since Bill Clinton in 1999 — and meet with religious leaders. He will also make high-profile visits to the tomb of secularist national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, one of Islam's most stunning sites.
In Obama’s inauguration Day address he sent an important message to this region when he said, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” His first visit to this region is a chance to see that message in action.
“Obama has shattered the image of America Bush left in Turkey but right now it’s a blank slate and people are waiting to see what he plans to write on it,” said Judson.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Turkey:
Young Turks question their identity
Turkey offer the US a path out of Iraq