Obama arrives in Turkey to strengthen ties

The US president's public backing of Turkey's bid to join the European Union irked France and Germany, but will help boost ties with a key Muslim ally.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama disembarked Air Force One as he arrived in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, April 5, 2009.

After helping broker crisis-averting deals at last week's G-20 meeting in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg, President Barack Obama helped set off an internal European fight by publicly endorsing the European Union membership bid of Turkey, where he will end his tour.

Obama's remarks, made at an EU-US summit in Prague on Sunday, were dismissed outright by French leader Nicholas Sarkozy and given a cool reception by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both of whom have previously expressed their opposition to Turkey becoming a full member of the 27-nation bloc.

On the other hand, observers say Obama's public support for Ankara's EU bid helps him with another challenge: repairing the US's significant – though troubled – strategic alliance with Turkey.

"I think the US clearly understands how important EU membership is for Turkey's economic and political stability, and the message that it would send to the Islamic world," says Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"I think Obama publicly supporting Turkey's membership will be appreciated in Turkey."

'A very rough eight years'

The last eight years have seen Turkey and the United States butt heads on a number of occasions. Turkey opposed the US invasion of Iraq and its parliament refused to pass a 2003 motion that would have allowed American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish soil. Some in Washington, meanwhile, had at times been uncomfortable with Turkey's active reengagement with the Middle East, particularly its growing relations with Syria and Iran.

And during the years of President Bush's administration, the Turkish public's opinion of America reached new lows, with a 2007 survey finding that only nine percent of Turks held a favorable view of their NATO ally, down from 52 percent in 2002.

"I would say that we have had a very rough eight years – rough at the policy level, but also rough at the level of public opinion. And in modern times, public opinion has an impact on policy," says Ian Lesser, an expert on Turkey at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

During his visit, Obama is scheduled to address the Turkish parliament – the last American president to do so was Bill Clinton in 1999 – and hold a town hall meeting with Turkish youth.

"I think Obama's visit can be quite transformative, depending on what he says to the Turkish parliament and what he says to Turkish society. People will be watching that very closely," Mr. Lesser says.

"Because the relationship has not been one of trust for the last eight years, at least now there is a possibility to get to a much better climate for discussing substance."

There is certainly a lot of substance to talk about. The US is looking to Turkey for help in its planned withdrawal from Iraq and for its buildup of troops in Afghanistan. Ankara's improved relations with Syria and Iran, meanwhile, could be helpful for the Obama administration's plans to establish a dialogue with those two countries. Energy security and the development of new routes for delivering oil and gas to Western markets are issues that could also benefit from Turkish-American cooperation, experts say.

A new period of more cooperation?

Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, says the problem of the past few years has not been one of finding issues of mutual concern, but rather a sense among Turkish officials and policy makers that their voice was seldom being heard in Washington.

"The fact that you can identify common interests doesn't mean you are doing anything about it. Under the Bush administration, the mood was that the United States would devise the solutions and you might or might not agree with them, but you had to go along," Prof. Turan says.

"I think there are quite a significant number of common interests, and if we can reach an understanding that things will be managed by mutual consultation and there will be moments when differences of opinion will prevail, then I think we can go into a period of healthy cooperation."

Obama's coming to Turkey at the end of a European tour, rather than as part of a Middle East visit, also sends an important signal, Prof. Turan says. For many Turks, the Bush administration's efforts to portray Turkey, which is working on joining the EU, as a "Muslim democracy" that could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world only worked to further widen the country's religious-secular divide.

"Turkey is now seen, not as a leading Muslim county in the Middle East, but again as a secular Muslim country that is an indivisible part of Europe. This makes it easier for Turkish policy elites to work with the United States and removes suspicion," he says.

Although the past eight years saw the Turkey-US relationship reach some very low points, observers warn against placing all the blame on missteps by the Bush administration. The relationship – a pragmatic alliance born out of mutual needs and threats faced in the wake of the Cold War – has been struggling to find new meaning since the fall of the Soviet Union.

"Turkey and the US are still working on redefining their relationship since the end of the cold war. It's a work in progress," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

"It's a good thing that the president is coming so early in his term because it underlines Turkey's abiding importance in American foreign policy," he says. But, Aliriza adds, "There isn't yet a thought-through blueprint for the US-Turkish relationship."

Turkey's role in the Middle East

One area where the two countries will need to clearly define their relationship is that of Turkey's emerging role in the Middle East, where Ankara has been trying to establish itself as a mediator and soft power broker.

In many ways, Ankara's more pronounced profile in the region has been the result of its filling a vacuum created by the Bush administration's disengagement from the Middle East and some of its thornier problems. But experts believe that Turkey and a US that's more engaged in the region can work together.

"There is no question that Turkey can play a constructive role in the Middle East. It has gained the confidence of the regional players on most of the major issues of great importance. As a result, in an era of diminished resources for the United States, Turkey can be a critical ally in the pursuit of Washington and Ankara's overlapping interests," Steven Cook, a Washington-based senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in recent briefing.

Golden age?

During a March visit to the US, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister's chief foreign policy advisor, predicted that Obama's visit and the alignment of shared interests between Washington and Ankara could herald the arrival of a "golden age" in Turkish-American relations.

Although there are many positive signs, analysts warn that Obama's visit to Turkey is only the first step in a necessary process of rebuilding a frayed alliance.

"A golden age would be terrific and who can argue with that as a goal," says GMF's Lesser.

"But for those of us who watch this stuff, we'll be satisfied with a partnership where there is less mutual suspicion and a lot more cooperation on key issues."

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