Edition 14 Volume 7 - April 16, 2009
Obama's initial regional deployment: Turkey
Converging regional policies -
Under Obama, Turkey will serve as a short-cut for American policy coordination in the region.
Fixing anti-Americanism in Turkey
Lately, the United States has done the right things to win Turkish hearts and minds.
Restoration of US-Turkey relations? -
Obama seems to prefer a Turkish foreign policy of the quiet and constructive type.
Aims beyond Turkey
No other country than Turkey could better suit the expectations of the Obama administration in appealing to the Islamic world.
Converging regional policies
During a visit to the United States that preceded President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, chief advisor to Turkey's prime minister, stated that "Our approach and principles are almost the same, very similar to the US on issues such as the Middle East, Caucasus, Balkans and energy security. Therefore, we hope that there is a golden era ahead in cooperation." That sentiment was based on converging developments in the Turkish and American approach to foreign policy issues, particularly the Middle East. Obama's subsequent visit to Turkey signaled that this new golden era had indeed begun.
It can be inferred from Hillary Clinton's remarks during her delegation's stay in Turkey that the US regards Turkey as an effective negotiator in the region. Turkey's relationship with Iran, Syria and Hamas is critical to the foreign-policy-through-diplomacy approach of the Obama administration: Turkey can act as a conduit through which America communicates with these countries and actors. Despite outspoken criticism in Washington of Turkey's open dialogue with America's enemies, the Obama camp regards Turkey's relationship with Iran, Syria and Hamas as positive.
Several issues marked the agenda during the Obama visit to Turkey. He addressed the Muslim world, arguing that the gap between the West and the world of Islam is not insurmountable. He extended an olive branch to the Muslim world with a strong declaration that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam." Obama's speech in the Turkish Parliament continued with words of friendship and the promise of seeking "broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect". His speech was broadcast live on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two most important Arabic satellite TV channels.
He placed his support for Turkey's inclusion in the European Union in the same context. In Prague, just before his visit to Turkey, he argued that Turkey's membership would make the EU a truly multi-cultural entity and help to bridge the gap between Islam and the West. He added in Turkey that the EU would be stronger with its inclusion. In addition, he sent a strong message of rapprochement to Iran from Turkey, implicitly honoring Ankara's offer to mediate between Tehran and Washington.
He proposed a "model partnership" between Turkey and the US. He wants Turkey to continue to contribute to Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Obama also satisfied Turkish concerns over his involvement in the Armenian genocide issue, noting that if Turkey and Armenia "can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that."
Under the Obama administration, America's foreign policy vision converges with Turkey's on democracy, human rights, peace and international legitimacy. This convergence is more about values than considerations of realpolitik. The Obama administration needs regional allies to implement its foreign policy through multilateral diplomacy. The way forward for the US toward positive bilateral relations with Turkey and a more effective engagement with the Muslim world is to firmly establish its foreign policy priorities in alignment with Turkey's. A review of the Obama delegation's agenda for his visit to Turkey reveals that the president did indeed present proposals for addressing such Turkish foreign policy problems as normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, associating this requirement with Turkey's leading role as a peacemaker in the region.
Obama called for further reform and democratization in Turkey, with strong reference to improvement of minority rights. He made it clear that there will be consistent support for Turkey's government as long as it moves in the direction he outlined. This should contribute to democratization in Turkey. Ankara's civilian elite is currently expending a great deal of energy to eliminate the Cold War-style illegal apparatus popularly known as Ergenekon that was deeply rooted within the state. US support for democratization and EU membership will anchor Turkey on this path.
The positive atmosphere of rapprochement that emerged with the Obama presidency will soon overturn the bitter legacy of the Bush era. One can easily foresee a rapid improvement of America's standing in Turkey and the Middle East. Obama with his new image will narrow the gap between East and West and establish sustainable friendships in the region. Considering the new foreign policy orientation of the US, under Obama Turkey will serve as a short-cut for American policy coordination in the region.
Obama pledged during his election campaign to enter into cooperation with Turkey; his visit proves that he will keep his word. Obama underlined Turkey's democratic, western, secular and Muslim charters and classified Turkey as an influential western country with multiple identities in the Middle East and its environs. The current Turkish administration promotes a domestic and foreign policy orientation that accommodates cooperation, as demonstrated by Turkey's recent peace-brokering in the region. It is only a matter of time before we witness the effects that a positive Turkish-American relationship has on the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.- Published 16/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Prof. Bulent Aras chairs the Department of International Relations at Isik University, Istanbul.
Fixing anti-Americanism in Turkey
President Barack Obama's visit to Turkey could not have gone better in terms of winning Turkish hearts and minds. Obama did all the right things, visiting Ataturk's mausoleum, the Blue Mosque and the Turkish parliament, capturing the complexity of a country that is Turkish by birth, Muslim in culture and western in its political identity.
Yet Washington still faces a challenge among the Turks: after a debilitating downturn in recent years, America's favorability rating is at rock bottom. Obama should be concerned about this phenomenon that, if ignored, will eat into the foundations of the new US-Turkish relationship he wants to promote on key issues, including Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. As serious as the problem is, though, Turkish anti-Americanism can be fixed.
Obama cannot and should not ignore anti-Americanism in Turkey, because as a democracy, Turkish politics are ultimately accountable to public opinion. Washington can sustain cooperation with all sorts of authoritarian Muslim states, such as Egypt, despite pervasive anti-Americanism in those countries, because these authoritarian regimes do not care for public opinion. In Turkey, though, these sentiments will sooner or later erode, reshape and then cripple governmental cooperation with the United States. Anti-Americanism in Turkey presents a larger, more immediate challenge to Obama than it does in other Muslim majority societies.
Obamania will help face this challenge. According to a recent poll by Infacto, whereas only 9 percent of Turks thought favorably of the US president four years ago, today 39 percent have a positive view of Obama. However, this jolt has not lifted America's standing in Turkey to match political ambitions for long-term and grand cooperation with Ankara as laid out by Obama's speech to the Turkish parliament on April 6. The Infacto poll also shows that 44 percent of the Turks view the United States as the biggest threat to Turkey.
Lately, the United States has done the right things to win Turkish hearts and minds. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her March visit to Turkey, and then President Obama gave the Turks a needed bear hug, emphasizing that the United States likes the Turks, respects their faith and supports their western vocation. Washington is assisting Turkey in its struggle against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terror attacks, a key security concern for many Turks. Obama has even shied away from his campaign promise to support the "Armenian Genocide" bill in the US Congress, which many Turks find extremely offensive.
At this stage, there is little more Washington can do to charm the Turks. As I learned during a recent sabbatical in Turkey, the Turks form their views of the world based upon what they hear from their leadership. Turkey is a rare fence-sitting country between East and West, in which pro-American and western statements have the same weight in shaping public views as do views that oppose the United States and the West.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, the Turks have not heard anything positive about the West from their leadership. In fact, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often lambasted the West, suggesting, for instance, that "the West uses terrorism to sell Turkey weapons" or that "Turkey has borrowed only immoral stuff from the West." Anti-Americanism has become pervasive in Turkey as not just the AKP but even secular and nationalist leaders now vehemently voice such views.
The United States cannot stop entrenched anti-Americanism altogether; only the Turkish leadership can do that. Hence, the first step toward combating anti-Americanism would be zero anti-American and anti-western rhetoric from opinion makers in Turkey, government and opposition alike. By avoiding anti-American rhetoric, the Turkish leadership could demonstrate that it is ready to receive Obama's extended olive branch.
The next step is targeting existing anti-Americanism, which can be alleviated precisely because the Turks are a fence-sitting people. What the Turks hear about the United States and the West shapes their views. In battling anti-Americanism, the Turkish leadership needs to highlight for the Turks the common interests of Turkey and the US, such as a stable Iraq; shared institutions, such as NATO; and shared values, such as democracy. Ankara should also give Washington major credit for intelligence assistance to Turkey in its attempt to stop terror attacks launched by the PKK. Many Turks are not only unaware of this fact, but also think that the United States supports the PKK, as many news reports and government allegations insinuate. The situation on the PKK shows best how Turkish views of the United States can be distorted.
President Obama should not despair when faced with evidence of anti-Americanism in Turkey. This is indeed an immediate and big problem, but it can be fixed, for there is a Turkish solution to anti-Americanism in Turkey.- Published 16/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hale Arifagaoglu is a research assistant at the Institute and Cansin Ersoz was a research intern at the Institute in 2009-2010.
Restoration of US-Turkey relations?
President Barack Hussein Obama swooped into Turkey on April 6 for two days of fence-mending bilateral relations with erstwhile, if sometimes prickly, ally Turkey while disseminating a message of friendship to the wider Muslim world. Obama cut a dashing figure, mesmerizing the normally skeptical Turkish public with self-deprecating references to his inspirational life story of struggle and achievement.
This trip can be characterized as a success in terms of public diplomacy. Opinion polls indicate that Turks have a growing favorable attitude toward Obama. Turkey's media was also mostly upbeat, bringing into sharp focus the contrast between the positive vibes toward Obama and the negative perceptions of former President George W Bush. Meanwhile, President Obama heaped praise on Turkey's European perspective, democratic and secular traditions, and regional aspirations in the Middle East. He deftly maneuvered around the hot Armenian issue without conceding on his points of principle.
Obama also awed audiences beyond Turkey. After all, the visit was not just about Turkey but additionally about the Muslim world. His speech to the Turkish parliament--in which the sound bite that the US is not at "war with Islam" was interpreted as a radical break with Bush's "war on terror" rhetoric--attracted the close attention of the Arab media.
Now that the party is over, a more sober assessment of the ultimate impact of the Turkey jamboree is needed. For starters, it is fair to say that US-Turkey relations witnessed a rapid turnaround before Obama, during the tail end of previous administration, after President George W. Bush agreed to actively cooperate with the Turkish military against Kurdistan Workers' Party combatants infiltrating Turkey from northern Iraq.
But Obama's charm offensive has generated heightened expectations of a substantive shift in US foreign policy, specifically targeting the Middle East. Turkey welcomes Obama's current desire to open dialogue with Iran and Syria, as well as the ongoing plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by mid-2010 and all troops by the end of 2011. But, as always, the real litmus test will be the US stance on the dispute between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. How the US handles the new government in Israel and the glaring divide between Palestinian groups will be closely watched by Turkey and the Muslim world.
Naturally, heightened expectations are not just a one-way street. Obama expects Turkey to deliver on its promises to improve ties with Armenia by re-opening the border that has been closed since 1993 and establishing diplomatic relations. Whether Turkey can re-open the border in the absence of a resolution to the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh is open to debate. Yet, there is a serious risk of disappointment in Washington if promises fall short or flat.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly abrasive style of diplomacy, displayed in full during his adamant opposition to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's candidacy to take the helm at NATO, could eventually irk US policymakers. Obama seems to prefer a Turkish foreign policy of the quiet and constructive type rather than one based on emotional gestures and religious undertones. So the ground exists for some disappointment here as well.
Despite the pitfalls, there is no doubt that US-Turkey relations are, at least for now, on a firmer, realistic footing. Gone are the poisonous atmospherics, in come greater mutual cooperation and respect. However, the present mood cannot be taken for granted. That the stability of instability in the Middle East and Caucasus could provoke events that scuttle relations with Turkey is possible, perhaps resulting from the Israel-Arab bifurcation, Iran's nuclear endeavors, Iraq, Afghanistan or Armenia, to name just a few examples. Public diplomacy was the easy part. Delivery is a far harder prospect.- Published 16/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Fadi Hakura is the Turkey analyst at Chatham House in London.
Aims beyond Turkey
Why did President Barack Hussein Obama visit Turkey so soon? Considering that Turkey and the United States have a long history of strategic relations both at the bilateral level and in the context of the North Atlantic alliance, the opening question may seem redundant. However, it is not. What is unusual in Obama's state visit to Turkey is its timing.
US presidents traditionally pay their first visits to their northern neighbor Canada, and Obama did not make an exception to this rule. Then, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Washington Treaty that established NATO, Obama stopped in Europe. In the aftermath of this important summit meeting, Obama chose Turkey for his first state visit to a foreign country.
Despite the degree of deterioration in Turkish-American relations during the better part of the two Bush administrations and the need for a quick recovery, Obama would still not have visited Turkey on day 76 of his term in the White House had there not been urgency to fulfill another important mission.
The accomplishments of US presidents in their first 100 days in office are carefully scrutinized by the world's media. Needless to say, putting in place a series of comprehensive measures to effectively deal with the economic as well as financial crisis in the United States, which has had far-reaching consequences worldwide, was assigned the highest priority by the Obama administration.
A second and equally important priority of the new administration in its first 100 days, however, was to appeal to the Islamic world with a view to repairing the severely damaged relations since 9/11. Political observers were quick to place bets on which country Obama would choose as the podium to appeal to the hearts and minds of more than a billion Muslims around the world.
Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan were all touted in this context, while Turkey was rarely mentioned. A few on the list, such as Egypt and Indonesia, were seen as the most likely candidates for such a mission by virtue of the strategic relationship between the United States and the former, and the close personal connection of President Obama with the latter.
Turkey was not seen as a likely candidate mainly because of strong opposition from secular circles in Turkish society, including the powerful military, who are very keen on the secular character of the republican regime founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, and not so keen on being perceived as a role-model for the Islamic world. These circles had reason to be suspicious of possible hidden intentions behind such a role for Turkey, given the fact that the United States was not successful in mitigating their fears with several reckless statements to this effect from the higher ranks of the Bush administration.
Thus Obama's address on April 6 to the Turkish Grand National Assembly was delicately balanced with respect to the role that the new US administration had in mind for Turkey. His speech incorporated carefully placed references to "Turkey's strong and secular democracy" being Ataturk's "greatest legacy", as well as statements about America's "partnership with the Muslim world" being "critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject". Obama on the one hand emphasized that "the United States [was] not at war with Islam and [would] never be," and, on the other hand, underlined the fact that he was "one of [the Americans]" who had "Muslims in their family".
In hindsight, no other country than Turkey could better suit the expectations of the Obama administration in appealing to the Islamic world. There are two reasons for this. The first is Obama's strong emphasis on the co-habitation of the virtues of secularism and democracy with the Islamic faith in the Republic of Turkey, which are clearly acknowledged and appreciated by the western world.
Second is the rising profile of Turkey in the public domain of Islamic nations across the globe, especially since the critical involvement of Turkey in efforts to stop the Israeli Gaza offensive, and also due to the growing popularity of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan following his strong reaction to Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos summit in January.
Decades-old strategic relations between the United States and Turkey aside, the early-bird visit of Obama to Turkey owes much to the secular, democratic character of Muslim Turkey and also aims at fulfilling an urgent mission, long overdue: to capture the broken hearts and the confused minds of Muslim populations around the world, including those of secular Turks.- Published 16/4/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.