President Obama may have put Turkey last on his first overseas trip, but in this case, last does not mean least. He's actually moving this democratic Muslim country into a position of greater primacy among America's foreign partners – as it should be.
This would not have been possible under the previous administration. Not that President George W. Bush didn't also recognize the central role that this strategic country of more than 70 million people plays in one of the world's most troubled regions.
But the Iraq war turned Turks off to the US. Very off. Turkish public opinion of America was among the lowest in the world last year, mustering just 12 percent approval. The government, a longtime NATO ally, has been more supportive, taking part in the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. Still, relations have been at a low.
One senses that Turkey is ready to work more closely with this president. The "Hussein" part of his name helps. But so does the fact that the US is preparing to pull out of Iraq. Helpful, too, is Mr. Obama's "listening" attitude, though his speech before the Turkish parliament in Ankara Monday at times sounded like a professor in a lecture hall.
The potential benefits of a closer US relationship with Turkey are significant – for both countries.
Turkey sits at a geographic crossroads where religions, petroleum, and political interests have often collided like tectonic plates. With a toe on the European continent and its heel abutting the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, and Syria – and with its democratic credentials, economic clout, and Islamic sensibilities – it is in an ideal position to help the US work constructively in a region that springs conflict.
In recent years, Ankara has been trying to implement a policy of "zero problems" on its borders. This spade work could prove useful at a time when Washington is looking to revive the Middle East peace process and explore dialogue with Iran and Syria.
Turkey has brokered peace talks between Syria and Israel (unsuccessful so far). It's brought the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan together. It has attempted to calm relations between Russia and Georgia. And now it's involved in a historic effort to open its border with Armenia – even as the two countries still bitterly disagree whether the 1915 massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire constitutes "genocide" or not.
At the same time, the US is uniquely positioned to assist Turkey. Lawmakers applauded when Obama pledged to strengthen American support in fighting Kurdish terrorists who launch attacks on Turkey from northern Iraq. Ankara criticized the Bush administration for not doing enough.
Obama, too, can speak with special authority in encouraging the traditionally Christian European Union to move ahead with membership for largely Muslim Turkey. As America knows, "diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith" is a "gain," as he said today, not a minus.
But Turkey itself must "sustain" (i.e., don't stall) its commitment to democratic reforms in rule of law and minority and religious rights, Obama rightly pointed out.
Of course, even best of intentions on both sides will not guarantee positive outcomes. But through his bridge-building trip to Turkey, the president brings the US much closer to the possibility of them.