President Barack Obama’s stop in Turkey is hardly an afterthought, a “while I’m in the neighborhood” visit.For starters, he wants to mend relations strained when the United States went to war in Iraq six years ago. Ankara’s Islamic-rooted government denied Washington’s request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq from the north. But Turkey also is in line for thanks for trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim country in NATO, an alliance stalwart and America’s best friend in the Islamic world. Obama, completing a European trip, arrives Sunday and undoubtedly will reprise his message from a town hall meeting on Friday in France.“We must be honest with ourselves. In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift,” he said at that appearance.
Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al-Qaida a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Turkey’s participation carries enormous symbolic importance because it is the only Muslim country with a presence in the fight against Islamic extremism.
In talks with Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama will try to sell his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He should find welcoming ears, given the new U.S. focus on melding troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in both countries.“Obama may be able to create momentum for help from a broader sector of nominal U.S. allies in the Muslim world,” said Jeffrey Martinson, a historian and political scientist at Meredith College in North Carolina.“The fact that he’s visiting the Turks at the end of this major European trip is a nice homage to them,” Martinson said, noting that uppermost on Turkey’s agenda is gaining membership in the European Union.
The new president has pushed for Muslim diplomacy.
In his inaugural address in January, Obama assured the Muslim world that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He has made early telephone calls to friendly Arab leaders and sent special envoy George J. Mitchell to the Middle East on a “listening tour.”Obama’s declaration that he will close the prison for suspected terrorists Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was seen as a move to address a chief source of ill will among Muslim nations since the Sept. 11., 2001 terror attacks.Obama’s father and stepfather were Muslim and he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, a largely Muslim country. Throughout the campaign, Obama, who is Christian, fought false Internet rumors that he is a Muslim.
Despite the likely good will, Obama must finesse the tangled issue of Turkey’s history with Armenia. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks leading up to and during World War I, an event widely viewed by many scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, claiming the toll has been inflated and the casualties were victims of civil war and unrest.“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” Obama said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign Web site. “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president.”
So far, Obama aides refuse to say how he will deal with the legacy of that statement while in Turkey. Nor would they predict his stance on a resolution to be introduced soon in the House that describes the killings as genocide. His visit to Turkey also is uncomfortably close to the annual April 24 Armenian remembrance day.“The smartest thing on Armenia is to try to ignore what he said in the campaign,” Martinson said.
Then there is Iran. Turkey’s eastern neighbor is accused by the United States and most of Washington’s European allies of trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The Turkish government supports Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful use but wants Tehran to be transparent about its nuclear program and favors dialogue.
That goes along with Obama’s efforts to open a diplomatic front with Iran and the message from this past week’s Group of 20 summit. At that meeting, leaders said Iran must open up its nuclear program and support its claim that it does not intend to build a bomb.