“So as to strengthen the friendship between the two countries”

Obama in Turkey.

Barack Obama’s address to the Turkish parliament was impressive. It was the promised speech in a Muslim capital: But it was not simply that, which is precisely why it was so fine. It was well tailored to its audience. It included praise for Turkey’s secular democracy, affirmed Turkey’s European position, tread lightly on the genocide issue, spoke specifically on common economic and strategic interests and included the much lauded lines  “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam”. He cast American relations with the Muslim world outside of the lens of terrorism and al-Qaeda.

The dutiful mishandling of US-Turkish relations under the last administration strained ties between the two countries, and the Islamist-oriented AK government caused many in the Bush administration to look at Turkey with a skeptical eye. Obama’s speech alone will not repair these ties, and it will take much work to change popular perceptions of the United States in Turkey. But it is not impossible, and his trip was a step in the right direction.

It was so well done for the following reasons, though there are surely others.

  1. It embraced Turkey’s role in European and as a NATO power. While it is doubtful that Turkey will ascend to full EU membership, Obama maintained American support for Turkish membership and for its EU-oriented reforms. The reforms are more important than actual membership, and it was good to see that support for democratic reforms was held over. Furthermore, it placed the US-Turkish relationship in terms of NATO and shared interests, along with democracy. Turkey is key in securing US interests in the Middle East and its NATO membership makes it even more so in the context of Russia, Iran, the Balkans and assorted other areas of high concern.
  2. It highlighted Turkey’s Middle Eastern position. Turkey’s mediation on the Syrian-Israeli front is worth preserving, even with the fall out from Erdogan’s outburst at Davos. These grumbles gave Turkey greater credibility in the Arab sphere, and though the Israelis protested it (as was their right), it will likely end up doing the peace process more good than harm. Erdogan’s strategy of broadening Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East, partially as a response to its cool reception in Europe and “civilizational”  loyalties. This effort can be constructive and the Turks have handled it well and the US should continue to utilize it as a means of stabilizing the region. Though Turkish interests will not always coincide with American ones, there are more places where they meet than where they diverge.
  3. It framed the US-Turkish relations in terms of respect for Turkish sovereignty. Much of the early part of the speech discussed how Turkey “freed itself” and resisted outside domination and regressive beliefs in the wake of WWI. And when he discussed the question of the Armenian genocide and Turko-Armenian relations, he left these for the Turks to resolve but emphasized that the US supported mindful reconciliation and normalization. This is again important because of how miserably the US treated Turkey’s regional position under the last administration (especially in the runup to the war in Iraq and in Kurdistan generally), and the Congress’s genocide bill. Obama stressed that the US is seeking work with Turkey and not against it. He specifically stated that the US would stand against the PKK.
  4. Obama reached out to the Muslim world. While Ankara does not have the historical or cultural significance in Islamic history that Istanbul, Cairo or Damascus do, the message he delivered there was as relevant there as it would have been in most Muslim countries. Indeed, this made the Islamic parts of the speech some what “anti-climactic,” as Adam Garfinkle notes. But that the President stated clearly and with a greater sincerity than his predecessor that the “United States is not and will never be at war with Islam” and that its efforts against al-Qaeda and related militants is a task of “rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject”– not one of containing Islam or oppressing all Muslims. Many have noted that Bush said early in the “War on Terror”, but his actions led many to believe others. Obama’s promise to work with Muslims on issues aside from terrorism was significant, and even more so was the promise to prove through actions that American intentions are benevolent with “specific programs” to be outlined later in the year. This has pleased many Arabs and many Muslims.

In all, it was  a well put together statement and is historically significant in terms of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. We will look back to this speech when the administration actually begins heavy diplomatic and military operations in the region, to see if President Obama lived up to its promises. It is still too early to judge the administration in terms of policy, but it a splendid start in form (though he has not gotten much of what he went looking for at the G8 or in Prague). The European trip did not accomplish most of its end goals, but it has put the Administration on better footing. Now it is time for action, on which real evaluations can be made.

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