with a series of well-received speeches, events and high-level meetings, President Barack Obama’s state visit to Turkey appears to have achieved its main goal of laying a new foundation on which to rebuild the battered Turkish-American relationship. The US president also provided a boost for efforts aimed at ending decades of enmity between Turkey and Armenia.
“I think this was a very successful visit,” says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. “I think there is going to be a lot of cooperation between the United States and Turkey in the future.”
As part of his effort to repair the strained Turkey-U.S. strategic relationship, Obama delivered on April 6 a wide-ranging speech to the Turkish parliament, stressing the country’s importance as one rooted in both Europe and the Muslim world and encouraging its leaders to continue on the path of democratic reform. Obama also used his speech to reach out to the Muslim world, telling the applauding parliamentarians, “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.”
Although the two countries had at times clashed over the last several years, particularly regarding the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and aftermath, Obama used his speech to reaffirm the Turkey-US relationship. “Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together — and work together — to overcome the challenges of our time,” the president said, listing a number of issues that concern both countries, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation and energy security.
Obama’s reiteration of Washington’s support for Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union, as well as his call that Turkey continue with the political reforms required, were important, Alpay said.
“He emphasized the importance of democracy in this country and he pointed to almost all the issues that concern democratization in Turkey, indirectly referring to the Kurdish question, the rights of minorities, including non-Muslim minorities, and he also emphasized how countries are in need of changing. These are all very welcome remarks for people who care about democratization in Turkey,” he says.
Obama also tackled in his speech the one issue that could again derail Turkey-US relations: the question of how to deal with the 1915 massacres of Armenians during the Ottoman era. During his election campaign, Obama indicated he would characterize the killings of the Armenians as genocide. A resolution to do so was introduced in the US House of Representatives in March. In his speech before Turkish legislators addressed the issue directly, but was careful to carve out a constructive position on the issue.
“I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there’s been a good deal of commentary about my views, it’s really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive,” Obama said.
“We’ve already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations,” Obama continued. “So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working towards.”
Obama ended his visit with a public diplomacy gesture, meeting with a group of 100 Turkish university students for an unscripted town hall meeting that was broadcast on live television.
The Turkish public’s opinion of the United States had reached an all time low in recent years, something that was at times reflected in films, television and books. Turks and Americans fighting it out in Northern Iraq was the theme of both a 2005 Turkish bestseller called “Metal Storm” and “Valley of the Wolves,” a 2006 film that became one of Turkey’s highest grossing films ever.
In his opening statements to the students, Obama set out to counter what he said was a false message being delivered about the United States. “Sometimes it suggests that America has become selfish or crass and doesn’t care about the world beyond its borders,” Obama told the students. “I’m here to tell you that’s not the America I know.”
“We are still a place where anyone who tries can still make it. If that wasn’t true, then someone named Barack Hussein Obama could not become president,” the president added.
Obama held a similar, though larger, town hall meeting with French and German students during last week’s NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. His attempt to reach out to the Turkish public comes after a similar — and also well received — effort by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who during an early March visit to Turkey went on a popular television chat show to talk about her work and personal life.
“It’s a different style, but I think it’s effective,” says Berna Ozkale, a 21-year-old senior studying chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, who was among the students at the town hall meeting. “All these students are here because they have hope in the new American president. I wouldn’t have come if it was George Bush. I don’t think it would have improved me.”
Walking around with a wireless microphone, Obama took questions covering America’s position on climate change, its support for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and how his policies might be different from those of the Bush years.
In one of his answers, Obama talked about his hopes for peace in the Middle East and the difficulties of “unspooling centuries of hate.”
“Learning to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins,” the president told one questioner. “And it’s up to you to make that happen.”
Analysts say even if there are challenges ahead for US-Turkish relations, the tone set by Obama’s visit may help dampen their impact.
“I think so much can be solved by such outreach. One of the reasons that anti-Americanism in Turkey is so accentuated is that no one was visiting and no one was talking to Turkey. That’s half the battle,” says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels.
“I think that he’s setting a great example to the European Union,” Pope continued. “In a way he’s challenging European Union leaders to follow him and reconnect with Turkey.”
Editor’s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.
Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, wwwEurasiaNet.org. or www.soros.org.