Healing a populist rift with Turkey

ISTANBUL, Turkey — From his inaugural address 100 days ago to his powerful speech before parliament here last month, President Barack Obama has gone out of his way to make clear his diplomatic purpose in improving America’s relationship with the Muslim world.

But Turkey, the Muslim country that has throughout history lain at the crossroads of East and West, has greeted Obama with reserve, a cautious balance between expectations and fears.

And between those expectations and fears are fateful regional issues, including: stability in neighboring Iraq, countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions, keeping NATO unified in its goals, and having Turkey put its shoulder to the wheel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is no question the U.S. needs Turkey, but to court this critical ally there is much healing to be done.

George W. Bush’s unilateral foreign policy and the failed attempt to bully Turkey toward supporting the war in Iraq made the U.S. enormously unpopular here.  

The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey found Turkey to be the most anti-American country in the world. There has been a kind of casual demonizing of America in Turkish pop culture. And, unlike within the decision-making structures of authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s democratic make-up means that public opinion impacts policy. 

But there are some signs that Obama’s oratorical skill and his new message of engagement have caused a shift in the perception of U.S. power and the opinion held about Washington.

According to a recent survey by the polling agency Infacto, the percentage of Turks who think favorably of the U.S. president is up from a low of 9 percent four years ago to 39 percent today. But the Infacto poll also shows that 44 percent of Turks still view the U.S. as the biggest threat to Turkey.

So the Obama administration still has a lot of work to do on the diplomatic front with this crucial ally. And by most accounts it is doing it.

Visits to Turkey by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama constituted nothing short of a charm offensive.

And it has not fallen on deaf ears. On the day of Obama’s arrival, Hurriyet, one of Turkey's biggest newspapers, ran a banner headline in English: "Welcome, Mr. President." However, below the fold it added, in Turkish, "But we have been offended for the last eight years.”

Istanbul's famed bakery, Karakoy Gulluoglu, celebrated Obama’s  much-anticipated visit by creating a portrait of the president out of baklava called, you guessed it, Baracklava.

But there is no way to sugarcoat what is perhaps the single most emotional issue for Turks: That is, the issue of the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the wake of the Ottoman Empire. It is a dark chapter in history that Turkey calls an act of war, and that most of the rest of the world sees as genocide.

As a candidate, Obama vowed in no uncertain terms to be the first U.S. president to recognize the slaughter of Armenians as genocide.

In countless public statements his opinions were explicit: he would "recognize" the Armenian genocide because it was not a "personal opinion" but a "widely documented fact supported by an overwhelmingly body of historical evidence."

But if he ever lives up to those promises, it will be certain to abruptly damage Turkish-U.S. relations.  

When asked how most Turks would react were Obama to recognize the alleged genocide, Ece Bashar, a law student at Koc University said, “I think people would hate him for that, even the most so-called liberal and democratic people would despise him.”

As president, however, Obama’s approach has shifted from bold and unequivocal to nuanced and noncommittal, a point hammered home in his highly anticipated April 24 speech to commemorate the Armenian Remembrance Day.

In his speech Obama failed to use the term “genocide,” opting instead for the Armenian term “Meds Yeghern,” meaning, literally “great catastrophe.” 

While his words left little doubt about his personal feelings, they showed a clear break from his earlier promises.  

“This is a case of Obama’s pragmatism emerging because while candidate Obama believed in recognizing the genocide, President Obama went over to Turkey and realized that Ankara is a couple of hours away from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.  

“He appreciated the fact that Turkey’s physical location is its most important natural resource and that such a position makes Turkey an extremely valuable ally for the U.S. right now.”

Some analysts contend that the warming relations between Turkey and Armenia also played a crucial role in dampening enthusiasm within the U.S. for the genocide resolution.

“I’m not interested in the U.S. tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having a useful discussion,” Obama said in his trip in early April. 

“It’s a delicate balance that leaves no one satisfied but also doesn’t damage relations with either side too critically,” said Ian Lesser, a senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  

While Obama’s careful orchestration of the Armenian genocide issue remains critical, many observers believe it is unlikely to dominate Turkish-U.S. relations as completely as it has in the past, especially having rounded the April 24 corner with only minor cuts and bruises.  

There are simply too many more profound and long-standing goals that Turkey and the U.S. continue to have in common, such as preventing Iran’s development of a nuclear program, achieving stability in Iraq and establishing Arab-Israeli peace.

“The U.S. and Turkey share the common interest of a stable Iraq; shared institutions, such as NATO; and shared values, such as democracy,” Cagaptay said.

Iraq, once the cause of a major fraying in relations between Washington and Ankara, now represents a key point of cohesion with both sides committed to retaining a unified Iraq, and a similar outlook in terms of how to deal with PKK terrorism in northern Iraq, said Profesor Iltar Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

The Worker’s Party of Kurdistan (PKK) is and always has been viewed by Washington as a terrorist organization. And Obama has vowed cooperation with Turkey in preventing PKK operations along the Turkey-Iraq border.

As Obama comes closer to fulfilling his campaign promise of a troop withdrawal, such cooperation will only become more critical. 

An even bigger challenge for Obama is the tone that he sets in terms of winning the hearts and minds of a country that has grown increasingly distrustful of not only the U.S. but of the West at large.  

The continuing pitfalls for Turkey’s European Union candidacy have soured relations between Turkey and the West and led Turkey to strengthen ties with countries such as Syria and Sudan. U.S. support for Turkey’s candidacy has been unwavering but to limited effect; the Turkey-EU impasse is rooted as much in the EU’s objections to Turkish membership as it is in the AKP’s uneven commitment.

The U.S. has its own damage control to do as well. By focusing solely on Turkey’s Islamic identity for eight years the U.S. effectively mobilized that identity above Turkey’s other attributes and “limited its menu of cooperation,” Cagaptay said.  

In this arena, Obama’s visit could not have gone better. He not only showed his deep understanding of Turkey's many complex issues and identities, he framed his talk by underlining Turkey's European identity as a secular democracy.

The ease with which Obama balances his own multiple identities — black and white, ethnic roots that include Irish, English, Swedish and Kenyan, and faith streams in his life that are both Christian and Muslim — has led many Turks to feel an affinity with the president.

"I think that was a good decision for Obama [to come to Turkey]," said a financial analyst, Burcu Eke. "Turkey is like himself — a mixture of cultures. He is like us. So I think he was very right to choose this place."

For Which it Stands: 100 Days

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