President Barack Obama capped off his well-received visit to Turkey with a public diplomacy gesture, meeting with a group of 100 Turkish university students for an unscripted town hall meeting that was broadcast live on television. Like his speech yesterday in the Turkish Parliament, the event was part of Mr. Obama's effort to reinvigorate the Turkey-US relationship, which has been battered by policy disagreements and by what observers say was a lack of American outreach to Turkey.
"In some ways, the foundation has been weakened," Obama told the students, who had gathered in a cultural center housed inside a 17th-century Ottoman building that was once a canon factory. "In some ways, both countries have lost the sense that we are in this together. So I have come to help rebuild that foundation."
"I am personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement," Obama added. "We can't afford to talk past one another, to focus only on our differences, or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us."
Obama made his remarks before leaving Turkey for Baghdad, where he headed to Camp Victory to meet with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top military official in Iraq, and talk with US troops, 10 of whom will be awarded Medals of Valor by the president. A helicopter trip to the Green Zone was canceled due to poor weather; the president will instead speak by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
Shortly before leaving, he referenced his opposition to the Iraq war, but reminded his audience that it would be unwise to act hastily in changing course. (For a story on Obama's troop drawdown plans for Iraq, click here.) "Moving the ship of state takes time," he said. "Now that we're there," the US troop withdrawal has to be done "in a careful enough way that we don't see a collapse into violence."
One student asked about America's policy regarding the possibility of an independent Kurdish state being established in Northern Iraq. Ankara worries that such a move would set a dangerous precedent for its own Kurdish population.
"We are very clear about the territorial integrity of Turkey," the president answered. "We would be opposed to anything that would start to cut off parts of Turkey."
The Turkish public's opinion of the US has reached a record low in recent years, something that was reflected in films, television, and books. Turks and Americans fighting it out in Northern Iraq was the theme of both a 2005 Turkish bestseller called "Metal Storm," and "Valley of the Wolves," a 2006 film that became one of Turkey's best-grossing films ever.
In his opening statements to the students, Obama set out to counter what he said was a false message being delivered about the US.
"Sometimes it suggests that America has become selfish or crass and doesn't care about the world beyond its borders," Obama told the students. "I'm here to tell you that's not the America I know.
"We are still a place where anyone who tries can still make it. If that wasn't true, then someone named Barack Hussein Obama could not become president," the president added.
Obama held a similar, if larger, town hall meeting with French and German students during last week's NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. His attempt to reach out to the Turkish public comes after a well received effort by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, during an early March visit to Turkey, went on a popular television chat show to talk about her work and personal life.
"All these students are here because they have hope in the new American president," she said. "I wouldn't have come if it was George Bush. I don't think it would have improved me."
Walking around with a wireless microphone, Obama took questions covering America's position on climate change, its support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and how his policies might be different from those of the Bush years.
In one of his answers, Obama talked about his hopes for peace in the Middle East and the difficulties of "unspooling centuries of hate."
"Learning to stand in someone else's shoes, to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins," the president told the student who posed the question. "And it's up to you to make that happen."
Earlier in the day, Obama met with religious leaders, including Turkey's chief rabbi and the Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs.