Turkey warms to Clinton's candor

Was it TV magic or intelligent diplomacy? A month before Obama's visit, Hillary charms Turkey in a talk- show stop.

osman orsal/reuters
TURKISH TV: Secretary Clinton spoke with Turkish businesswoman Hayriye Ersoy, left, and talk show hosts after her appearance Saturday on a popular talk show in Turkey.

Stagecraft appears to have helped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton score a few points for America's battered reputation here.

In a departure from her busy agenda of traditional diplomacy, Secretary Clinton sat down for a Saturday interview on a popular television talk show, opening up on prime time about everything from how she fell in love to her challenged sense of fashion.

Asked by one of the hosts how she has dealt with life's difficulties – including much-publicized bumps in her marriage – Clinton answered: "You know, family, faith, friends are the core of my life and I don't know anybody whose life is smooth sailing."

Clinton and Turkish officials had significant issues to discuss during her one-day visit to the Turkish capital of Ankara, including the possible use of Turkish soil for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and her announcement that President Obama will make his own trip to Turkey in the next month.

But Clinton also had another mission: to resurrect America's shabby image in Turkey, where, according to a 2007 public opinion survey, only nine percent of the population held favorable views of the US, down from 52 percent in 2002.

The Turkish people were ready for the dose of warmth and candor offered by Clinton, says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

"This is good for American public diplomacy. Whoever planned this did it well," he says. "She is reducing the damage to the American image here in Turkey. I think Turks are ready to take a different look at America."

A departure from the past

The past few years have been dismal for America's image in Turkey. Turks were strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, while many also felt that the US was not doing enough to deal with the presence of Kurdish guerillas who were using their bases in Northern Iraq to attack Turkey.

Meanwhile, public appearances by American officials over the past few years were limited. Former president George W. Bush's one visit to Istanbul, for a NATO summit, saw him confined to a large security zone that turned a large part of downtown Istanbul into a ghost town.

Clinton discusses Bill, fashion, life

Although security was tight during Clinton's visit, perhaps more noticeable were her efforts to connect with everyday Turks, including the much-watched Saturday evening interview.

Hosted by four women, the program, called "Haydi Gel Bizimle Ol" (Come and Join Us), is the Turkish version of the popular American talk show "The View."

For an hour, Clinton smiled pleasantly while the hosts and members of the audience lobbed mostly softballs in her direction. Clinton made a similar appearance during her recent trip to Indonesia, visiting the set of a youth-oriented television show.

last week, on her first trip to Europe and the Middle East as secretary of state, Clinton's public diplomacy push included a town hall-style meeting in Brussels and a meeting with students in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Her stop in Israel did not include any interviews with the Israeli media, however.

During the television interview in Ankara, she tackled such important questions as her fashion sense and when the last time was that she fell in love.

"It was so long ago, with my husband," she told the studio audience. "We have been talking to each other and enjoying our life together ever since."

Regarding her clothing style, Clinton joked that the "fashion gene" had skipped her generation and went to daughter Chelsea.

The discussion might not have offered deep insight into the vexing geopolitical problems that plague the region, but her openness was noted. At a low-budget hotel in the heart of Istanbul, night clerk Ali Demir, splitting his attention between Clinton's television appearance and a soccer game streaming live on his computer screen, says he likes the secretary of state's approach.

"This is a good change. It's a different way," the clerk says about Clinton's interview.

"She's more colorful and seems closer to the people, more likable."

Any substance to the message?

Certainly, the Clinton name still has power in Turkey. A 1999 trip by then president Bill Clinton and his wife, where he visited an area that had been devastated by an earthquake, is still fondly remembered by Turks. In Istanbul's sprawling Grand Bazaar, it seems like almost every shop has a picture of the owner shaking hands with a beaming Bill Clinton.

"In Turkish-American relations, as much as the message matters, the messenger also matters," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of parliament and Deputy Chairman of External Affairs for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). "The name Clinton resonates differently here."

He adds: "Her coming to Turkey is probably going to be a pressing of the reset button and starting with a clean slate. Turkey is ready for that. The last eight years have been troublesome."

Still, some observers warn that television appearances alone will not be enough to sway Turkish public opinion.

"Overall, Obama's policies towards the region, towards Muslims, these are the things that will help improve America's image in Turkey. Clinton's appearance is a good start, but without a change in the main policies, you can't expect things to improve," says Lale Sariibrahimoglu, an Ankara-based analyst and a columnist for the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

"You can't just appoint someone to be in charge of PR. The product has to be good if you want it to sell."

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