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Healing a populist rift with Turkey

Obama is saying all the right things to Turkey, but advisers are keenly aware that if he touches the Armenian issue all bets are off.

President Barack Obama (C) and Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Apr. 7, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

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.