On April 6, U.S. President Barack Obama gave an address to the Turkish parliament in Ankara, on the occasion of his first visit to a Middle Eastern country as president. (If you cannot see the embedded video above, click here. The text is here.) In his speech, the President touched on a range of issues related to U.S.-Turkish and U.S.-Muslim relations. The following MESH members responded to an invitation to comment on the speech: J. Scott Carpenter, Michele Dunne, Hillel Fradkin, Adam Garfinkle, Bruce Jentleson, Josef Joffe, Mark N. Katz, Michael Reynolds, Michael Rubin, Philip Carl Salzman, Harvey Sicherman, Raymond Tanter, and Michael Young. Soner Cagaptay’s assessment is added in the comments.
J. Scott Carpenter :: There were many, including me, who were worried that President Obama’s speech before the Turkish parliament would send the wrong signal to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AKP) government, by embracing Erdoğan’s conceit that Turkey is somehow a leader of the “Muslim World” and a major player in the Middle East. Our worry, it turns out, was unjustified—for the most part.
In the speech, the President struck mostly high notes. Symbolically he linked Turkey strongly to Europe by traveling there as part of his European trip. He spoke of Turkey as the secular, democratic nation-state that it is, even as he challenged it to move forward on religious freedom and minority rights. His formulation that Turkey is a country where the Muslim faith is practiced was merely… accurate. When the President mentioned Turkey’s desire to play a role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, he did so only after referencing the more proximate conflicts of Nagorno-Karabakh and still-divided Cyprus. Importantly, in a thinly-veiled reference to Hamas, the President called on the Turkish government to “reject the use of terror, and recognize that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate.”
There were a couple sour notes, however. When the President delivered the requisite reminder that the United States is not, I repeat, not at war with Islam, he once again invoked the tired bromide of the so-called “Muslim World.” When will senior U.S. policy makers stop reinforcing Al Qaeda’s narrative about a mythical Muslim world? The President also continued to avoid the “D” word (democracy). Prosperity, instead, is the word of the day. Finding ways to improve education expand healthcare, boost trade and investment without improved transparency and accountability will be a neat trick which I look forward to hearing more about. The President promised more detail in “coming months.”
Whatever the Turkish people might have thought about the speech, Erdoğan’s body language suggested he did not like it. At all. The fact that Obama tracked substantively with President Bush on Iran and the Palestinian issue was clearly painful for him to hear. More painful still probably was the President’s wise decision to skip the Khatami-inspired Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Istanbul. The AKP were desperately hoping to rope the President into this muddleheaded effort to divide “civilizations” into religious camps. Actions always speak louder than words.
Michele Dunne :: In President Obama’s address to the Turkish parliament, he made a few basic statements—inter alia, “The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” “The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” and “The United States strongly supports Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European union”—that were, if not revolutionary, at least useful in their clarity. I will leave the evaluation of what Obama said on internal Turkish affairs to those who specialize in that, but what he said about specific reforms inside Turkey seemed to reach a satisfying level of detail, and he made several general statements—e.g., “freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state,” and “an enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people”—that encouraged further movement on these issues.
What was peculiar about Obama’s speech, however, was his strong emphasis on democracy (mentioned at least eight times) as the tie that binds the United States and Turkey in friendship, and yet his unwillingness to apply the same principle in the latter part of the speech to U.S. relations with the Muslim world. There, the “D” word was banned. Aside from the usual platitudes about “mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama promised to promote the welfare of people in the Muslim world only in socioeconomic terms: education, health care, trade and investment. No objections to that, Mr. President, but what’s the plan for working with countries where the state stands squarely in the way of citizens getting those things? And that would apply to quite a few states in the Muslim world.
The President and Secretary Clinton can only go around the world apologizing for the Bush administration for so long. The Obama administration needs its own foreign policy—one that is neither Clinton-warmed-over nor anything-but-Bush—and one that takes account of current conditions. Those conditions include much more political ferment and stronger demands for civil and human rights than existed in the Middle East a decade ago. So promoting democracy and human rights will need to be part of that foreign policy, including in the Muslim world. It’s getting to be about time to face that, and Turkey would have been an excellent place to start.
Hillel Fradkin :: Towards the close of his speech to the Turkish parliament, President Obama declared “as clearly as I can” that the “United States is not at war with Islam.” He sought to reinforce that message by implying that our military actions within the Muslim world, in past and future, have only the object of “rolling back a fringe ideology” and the terrorism represented most prominently by Al Qaeda—an effort he regards as shared by Muslims themselves.
Much attention has and will be paid to this declaration—it is already being referred to as an “olive branch”—even if it stated the obvious. The United States is not in fact at war with Islam and never has been, as President Bush made clear by declaring Islam to be a religion of peace but a few hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001. For after all, why would we Americans be at war with a peaceful religion? Moreover, although our soldiers are presently engaged in fighting some Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we are fighting side by side with other Muslims. A statement of these facts would have enhanced Obama’s declaration.
But perhaps the obvious must sometimes be stated, and Obama is perhaps in a better position to make it clear by virtue of a fact he mentioned in his speech: he is among those Americans “who have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country.” Perhaps this will put this issue to rest so long as such misunderstanding as exists is not willful. At all events, and as Obama implied, the future of peaceful and fruitful relations between the United States and the Muslim world may depend less on the United States than on the approach that the Muslim world takes to terrorism of all varieties—including anti-Israeli terrorism—and the ideologies which inform them.
But Obama’s speech was not primarily addressed to the Muslim world, but to the Turkish people and its government. In the long run, it is the substance of his remarks to them which is likely to be more important than his declaration—and not only for U.S.-Turkish relations but for the wider Muslim world. Here he placed less stress on Turkey’s Muslim heritage than its republican heritage as the first and so far the most successful Muslim-majority republic.
As Obama almost indicated directly, this emphasis comes against the background of recent concerns that Turkey under the present leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) might be weakening in its fidelity to that heritage, turning away from its long-standing alliances with Western countries—including the United States—and even moving closer to radical Islamic actors such as Sudan and Hamas. Obama’s remarks, although gently stated, essentially urged Turkey to renew its historic commitment to republican democracy and reaffirm its role as the place where East and West “come together.”
Obama referred explicitly to the heroic statesmanship of Atatürk, George Washington and perhaps above all of Abraham Lincoln. In light of his appeal to Lincoln, one might say that Obama invited Americans, Turks and Europeans to listen to the “better angels of our nature,” and urged Turks in particular to rededicate themselves to the propositions upon which modern Turkish history and success have been built. This was an important message to deliver, and it can only be hoped that it will be well received. That hope may however embrace not only Turkey but the wider Muslim world, which might profit from the example of Turkish republican success both now and hopefully in the future. In the long run, the reception of that message will be more important to American-Muslim relations than the declaration that the United States is not at war with Islam.
Adam Garfinkle :: President Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament yesterday was, to my way of thinking, an anti-climactic event. For months now we have been tantalized by the promise that Obama would go to a majority-Muslim country and tell it like it is. And this is what we get? This was a box-checking speech, full of duck-billed platitudes and not a single deliverable. The only things noteworthy about it were that: a) it happened; b) there was no quid pro quo protocol equilibration to Greece; and c) the speech abjured the old language that Turkey is a “moderate Muslim nation.” Turkey, we learn, is a secular democracy, just as Atatürk and his secular fundamentalist followers have insisted ever since 1924. This comes at a time when Turkey has a government, and a fairly popular one, that makes that description less resonant politically than ever. Why go talk to a Muslim-majority society only to pretend, sort of, that you’re not?
As for the “key” line—that we are not at war with Islam—well, Obama buried his lead four-fifths the way down the text, and of course that statement is nothing Bush administration principals, including the President, did not say dozens of times. If it suits your interests not to believe that statement, it’s not going to matter much which U.S. president says it. If it suits your interests now to stop saying you don’t believe it, then any president who is not George W. will do. If some Muslims now have heard this statement for the first time, just because it was delivered in Turkey by Barack Obama, fine: better eventually than not at all. But no, that statement in and of itself is not a game-changer, not with more U.S. soldiers headed to Afghanistan, more missiles fired into Pakistan’s border areas, more violence inevitable in Iraq over the next two years. Those of the conspiratorial persuasion seeking evidence that Obama is a liar will be able to find it just as easily as those who were sure George W. was a liar.
As for the speech itself as a form of the “black arts” (as Peggy Noonan once put it about speechwriting), it’s the worst major presentation the President has given (or delivered) so far. Judging from the official transcript pulled off the White House website, I counted at least two dozen mild infelicities, bona fide clunkers and grammatical errors that never should have made it past a second draft. One of these days people will stop comparing Obama to the hopeless George W. Marblemouth and recognize how mediocre this stuff really is.
Am I saying I could have written a better speech for this occasion? Yes, I actually believe that. There were oh-so-many missed opportunities in that speech—so many ways to have better concretized U.S.-Turkish friendship, and so many ways to have recognized that tolerance, hospitality, rule of law and other virtues (not to exclude democracy) which apply to Turkey, historically and at present, do not have to be expressed in an American idiom to be real and worthy of sincere admiration.
Maybe the lack of a unifying theme and anything remotely resembling a deliverable is the good news here. Some people had been hoping that Obama would use this occasion to launch a Presidential initiative on Israel/Palestine, stating U.S. parameters for a settlement, inviting the world to sign up to them, and implying muscular suasion on all engaged sides to make it happen. That we did not hear. Though I am skeptical that such a policy is wise, I’m almost sad it didn’t happen: that, at least, would have made the speech memorable.
Bruce Jentleson :: Good speech. Got both the music and the words right. Doesn’t solve all problems in U.S.-Turkish relations, or all issues on the U.S. agenda of which Turkey is part, but does amount to a good start on both separating from the most counterproductive parts of the Bush policy and defining the key elements of an Obama policy.
Obama struck two key notes in getting the music right. One was his emphasis on mutual respect. This is the same phrasing he used in his inaugural address and in his video message to Iran. True, the respect mantra often gets invoked in the Muslim world as cover for less defensible positions. But its genuine resonance is even truer. Meeting people where they are, rather than where one may think they should be, is more likely to lead to being able “to build on our mutual interests, and rise above our differences,” as Obama put it, than lecturing and hectoring. Those self-styled hard-headed powerites who like to deride this sense of mutuality would do well to remember how the strength of anti-Bush sentiment in the Turkish parliament blocked Turkish military cooperation with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The other was the line about not being at war with Islam. This needed to be said. Sure, Bush made any number of disclaimers of his own. But they didn’t stick. In saying that trust was strained “in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced,” Obama was recognizing reality. That’s strategic, not self-flagellatory as some neo-cons would have it.
On the substance he also got much right. He spoke to Turkey’s multi-faceted role as an ally, not just on terrorism or any one particular issue but more broadly on a range of global, regional and bilateral issues. He gave Turkey credit for its diplomacy in the Israel-Syria talks, while stressing active U.S. re-engagement in the Arab-Israeli peace process. He supported Turkey’s accession to the European Union. He also pushed a bit on internal democratic reform and rule of law. He approached the Armenia issue with more of an eye to what the two countries need to do together than what the lobby back home expects of him.
Much remains to be done. Music and words are fine, but action must follow. But not bad for a start.
Josef Joffe :: “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” This is one of those sentences which are so right that nobody could disagree—like “I love jamocca ice cream” or “The sun sets in the west.” Of course the United States is not at war with Islam, and never will be. If you want to push it, you might say: a part of Islam is at war with America, and for that there is plenty of evidence—from 9/11 to an endless slew of statements made by Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri or a bunch of lesser imams and mullahs or by various leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas, not to speak of those representatives of the “Arab street” we get to see on Al-Jazeera.
Why would the president affirm what was undeniable in the first place? To make a gesture, of course. As he did with this sentence: “I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Again, this is as “surprising” (or if you want to be catty: vacuous) as the “we are not at war” sentence. Whoever based America’s relationship with the umma on “opposition to terrorism?” Not Bush ’43—not, he, the coddler of Saudi Arabia, the financier of Egypt, the ally of Jordan’s Abdullah, the guarantor of the Gulfies. How patient, to the point of self-effacement, was W. with Turkey, after Ankara betrayed him in the run-up to the Iraq war? And who saved the Muslim Bosnians from the rage of the Serbs? The U.S. Air Force in the days of Clinton.
“We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground.” Does this mean we did not listen carefully to our Arab allies, paying over-sensitive respect to their fence-sitting and their mumbly caveats? Here Obama resorts not to belaboring the obvious, but to the oldest (liberal) tradition of American foreign policy. There are no clashes, no interests, no conflicts—just “misunderstandings.” And if we listen hard and patiently enough, these “conflicts” will just go poof.
Of course, these are not the ways of international politics, where collisions and conflicts are real, where the measure is not goodness or careful listening, but the power and the will that—sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly—backs up diplomacy.
Especially in the Hobbesian universe that is the Islamic Middle East—say, from the Levant to the Hindu Kush—homily will get you nowhere. Let’s hope the 44th president of the United States is not like Jimmy Carter who took four years to learn about the nasty ways of the world—who preached in the beginning that we should lose our “inordinate fear of communism” only to be rewarded by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and who let Khomeini come to power only to be repaid with the 444-day humiliation of the embassy hostage crisis.
Mark N. Katz :: President Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament was designed to appeal not just to the Turkish public, but also to the broader Muslim world. In it, Obama certainly struck many positive notes. His administration is for improved Turkish-American and Muslim-American relations. His administration also seeks peace or improved relations between Turkey and Armenia, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and Syria, among others. His administration supports Turkey’s admission to the European Union.
Indeed, Obama signaled that America is willing to work with all parties in the Muslim world except the terrorists. He called for the United States to work with Muslims and non-Muslims alike against them. The only two terrorist movements that he mentioned by name, though, were the PKK and Al Qaeda. He made no mention of the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah, among others. By not describing them as terrorist, Obama has certainly opened the door—and perhaps even raised the expectation—that he is willing to work with them.
The audience applauded when Obama said, “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” His next sentence—”In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people”—appears to be more an expression of hope than a statement of fact. For unfortunately, there is widespread support in the Muslim world for non-democratic movements that engage in terrorism. Many Muslims instead see groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and even the Taliban as legitimate “national liberation” movements.
What Obama may soon find is that it is going to be extremely difficult for the United States to appeal to the broader Muslim world and to fight terrorist groups within it simultaneously. The Bush administration at least recognized that this was a dilemma and attempted to resolve it by recognizing the need for democratization (even if it did not push very hard for this in many Muslim countries). But Obama’s statement that “Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement. It was not forced upon you by any outside power,” appears to be a strong signal that his administration does not share even the Bush administration’s recognition that the United States can and should do something to promote democratization in the Middle East.
Obama’s hopes for improved relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world are laudable. But unless public opinion in the Muslim world stops supporting non-democratic political movements, or these movements undergo a democratic transformation, it is doubtful that the improved relations he hopes for can be achieved.
Michael Reynolds :: President Obama demonstrated in Turkey the talent that has distinguished him at least since his tenure as head of Harvard’s Law Review: namely, the ability to play the role of reconciler between otherwise seemingly irreconcilable sides. The best example of this was his ability to touch on the question of the Armenian genocide in his speech to the Turkish parliament in such a way as to win applause from the parliamentarians as well as praise from one of the leading advocates of Turkish recognition of genocide.
Obama’s charisma extended beyond the parliament. Even the thousands of leftist protesters who declared Obama to be merely a new face for an old American imperialism felt compelled in interviews to concede that, yes, Obama himself comes across as intelligent, affable, and appealing. Posters showing a cartoon Uncle Sam with Obama’s face superimposed recalled the famous New Yorker magazine’s spoof of Obama dressed in a turban, albeit with precisely the opposite point: far from being a secret Al Qaeda sympathizer, Obama represents merely a new face for an old American imperialism.
Obama’s message of humility, patience, and charity thus left a generally positive impression in Turkey. Needless to say, however, articulating a vision wherein conflicts are resolved through mutual and sincere compromise is easier said than achieving that vision. Obama has not yet indicated publicly to what extent he is willing to use American power, positive as well as negative, to push the resolution of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts.
Another thing that that struck me was this statement made by Obama in support of Turkey’s EU candidacy: “Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith—it is not diminished by it.” It is a quintessentially American assertion. The sentiment behind it is, indisputably, appealing on the most obvious level. But one has to wonder what citizens of the European Union, regardless of their stance on Turkey’s EU candidacy, think when the President of the United States of America makes declarations about what constitutes Europe’s fundamental interests.
Michael Rubin :: There are certain points every U.S. official should make upon visiting Turkey. President Obama did his homework and delivered them. He is correct when he declares, “Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together—and work together.” Obama is right to highlight Turkey’s EU accession ambitions as well as the reforms accomplished over the past several years. And he successfully tiptoed through the political minefield of the Armenian genocide debate.
However, Obama also broke new ground, not all of it positive. For example, Obama stated, “The United States will continue to support your central role as an East-West corridor for oil and natural gas.” But how can Obama expect to pressure Iran to accede to its international obligations when Turkey’s State Minister Kürşad Tüzman seeks to raise bilateral trade with the Islamic Republic to $20 billion? (It was just $1.3 billion when the AKP took power.)
And while diplomatic nicety is the bread-and-butter of speechwriters, in the case of Obama’s reference to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it can have cost. Here his comments were infused with moral equivalency which is especially dangerous given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s embrace and, indeed, endorsement of Hamas. Obama could have sent a positive message, especially in a country like Turkey which has suffered so much terrorism, had he reinforced that idea explicitly that democracies must stand against terrorism and that no political agendas can legitimize terrorism. Obama drew equivalence between Al Qaeda and the PKK; he should have added Hamas to the mix. Let us hope that, before Obama embraces Erdoğan as a true partner, he becomes aware of the Turkish Prime Minister’s endorsement of Al Qaeda financier Yasin al-Qadi.
Rhetoric is easy, but can be ephemeral. It is easy to say “We will be respectful, even when we do not agree,” but the President of the United States should never sacrifice the values of free speech or expression in order to protect the sensitivity of anyone who might take insult. To compromise fundamental values is a slippery slope; we should not go down the path of Europe. Nor should Obama speak of the Islamic world. He should recognize the true diversity of Muslim peoples, and not seek to impose a unitary identity upon them.
Philip Carl Salzman :: Will President Obama, even with his Muslim middle name, have any greater luck than President George W. Bush reassuring the Muslim world of the good will and good intentions of the United States? He goes farther, saying that “we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better.” Along the same line, addressing Turkey’s application to the EU, he argues that “Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith.” In fact, the benefits of Islam, both in history and prospectively in the EU, are highly contested, but the Turks and Muslims more broadly probably welcomed these sentiments.
The President says that the United States is not and can never be at war against Islam, that “our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.” Here the President asserts a division between the moderate majority of Muslims and the minority “fringe” of jihadis—oops, I mean “terrorists”—not to be specified further. This may be a distinction without as much of a difference as we, and the President, might hope. If the President says it enough, maybe his Muslim audience will come to believe it.
The President’s approbation of Turkey and its recent legal measures was clear, while he urged its leaders to continue along the line of diversity and pluralism, particularly in regard to the Kurds (but not the PKK), and the Orthodox Christians, as well as to resolve differences and improve relations with Armenians. At the same time, he stressed the secular nature of the Turkish constitution, and made no mention of the Islamist—I mean Islamic—party in government.
President Obama took a hard line on Iran, focusing not on cooperation in regard to Iraq and Af/Pak, but on Iran’s movement toward nuclear weapons. He offers a stark choice to Islamic Republic: “Iran’s leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people.” No hints about what may follow the manufacture of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
They say that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, first as campaign promises, then as foreign policy. So it is with Palestine. In spite of much good advice from MESH prior to the President’s ascension, he is determined to achieve what so many, with so much effort, have failed to achieve: “In the Middle East, we share the goal of a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of good will around the world.” (Emphasis added.) I do not know which Palestinians the President has been speaking to, but neither Hamas nor Fatah will recognize Israel, and the preferred goal of most Palestinians appears to be a different two-state solution: Palestine and Jordan.
Harvey Sicherman :: President Obama’s speech at the Turkish parliament gave ample evidence of his gift for allowing his audience to see themselves in him. Thus, he spoke winning words to those advocating the democratic Kemalist Turkey of the West. But those who wanted to “reorient” (literally) Turkey toward the East could also find comfort in references to Ankara’s mediation of regional conflicts and imperial Muslim past. Kemalism, of course, burns the bridge to the East. And the current Turkish government is suspected by its opponents of seeking to burn the bridge to the West. Nevermind; Obama levitated above this contradiction with the crowd-pleasing conclusion that “Turkey’s greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things.” Gifted rhetoric to be sure.
In the wake of Presidential parades, a clean-up crew (usually the unfortunate Secretary of State) must collect the policy. Three specifics:
- RESET: To use the blackberry-proficient President’s favorite phrase, he wants a renewal of U.S.-Turkish cooperation. On the most neuralgic item—the Kurds—Obama pledged “our support” against the PKK while restating that the new Iraq should not be a danger to its neighbors (i.e. no independent Kurdistan). He advocated Turkish entry to Europe (a poke at France and Germany) and swallowed whole in public his previous view of the Armenian genocide, which he consigned to the historians.
- I’m coming your way: Obama notified Israel’s new government not to quarrel over the two-state solution, “the road map and Annapolis… a goal that I will actively pursue as President of the United States.”
- I feel your pain: Ankara was another installment in a campaign to change the American image, this time for Muslims. Obama declared (as had Mr. Bush) that the United States was not “at war with Islam.” He tried manfully to lift the American-”Muslim World” relationship out of the terrorist focus through two devices: a respectful search for common ground and his personal experience of Muslims in the family. This, too, was cunningly designed to sway his audience: I am not one of you but I am close enough to know you, a near relative as it were. And, of course, “we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith…” Although variations on the theme were also uttered by his predecessor, the President can count on amnesia, and his own striking example, to change the image. But does this really matter? And is Obama not raising expectations of impossible comity with a “Muslim World” at war with itself and gripped by the grievance culture besides?
Raymond Tanter :: In tennis, when confronting a choice between hitting the ball cross-court or down the line, “Solve the riddle by going up the middle!” Like the tennis analogy, the visit of President Obama to Turkey is a search for a middle ground between opposing points of view.
One school of thought: Turkey’s harsh response to Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad should prompt the NATO alliance to reconsider Turkey’s commitment to the global struggle against radical Islam. Because such “Islamism” is priority number-one for NATO, and because Ankara holds an incompatible view of the threat, consider removing Turkey from the alliance.
When Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen rose as consensus candidate for NATO Secretary General, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan raised objections. Rasmussen had been prime minister when the cartoons were published and refused to censor the newspapers in which they ran. Rasmussen was cleared for the NATO post after negotiating with Turkish President Abdullah Gül and stating: “I consider Turkey a very important ally and strategic partner, and I will cooperate with them in our endeavors to ensure the best cooperation with Muslim world.” Obama’s apt intervention to help devise language acceptable to the parties allowed for the appointment of Rasmussen and typifies the President’s approach of searching for a middle ground between opposing points of view.
A second school: Turkey’s strategic position—the second-largest NATO-member army; borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran; a base for U.S. operations in Afghanistan; and Europe’s sixth-largest economy—requires greater outreach and integration of Turkey into Europe.
Accordingly, Washington should take a lead role in promoting Turkish accession to the European Union to overcome French objections. Enhanced bilateral relations would include expanding the economic component of U.S.-Turkey relations and promoting more collaboration between mid-level military officers. To overcome religious tension, the United States would no longer treat Turkey as a “Muslim country” and more as a European country.
The most prudent course for the Obama administration is the middle path between these two extremes, a road the President is beginning to take. Indeed, Turkey is too important an ally to alienate with even the suggestion that the country might be removed from NATO. But enthusiastic engagement should depend on the degree to which Turkey is on the same page as the rest of NATO regarding the threat of radical Islam.
Michael Young :: As I read President Obama’s comments to the Turkish parliament on Monday, I couldn’t help but think of Egypt.
Under the conditions prevailing during much of the past 25 to 30 years, his speech would have been one that, in its references to the Arab-Israeli conflict but also at the highly symbolic moment of Obama’s first contact with the Middle East, would have been made before the Egyptian parliament. Instead, the U.S. president chose a non-Arab state as the venue for his first major address to the region and the Islamic world.
One wonders how Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak reacted when he heard Obama say: “The United States and Turkey can help the Palestinians and Israelis make this journey. Like the United States, Turkey has been a friend and partner in Israel’s quest for security. And like the United States, you seek a future of opportunity and statehood for the Palestinians. So now, working together, we must not give into pessimism and mistrust.”
Surely, he felt that someone had gently bumped him back into the line. Wasn’t Egypt the traditional mediator between Israelis and Palestinians? If your hunch is that this gives us a sense of the thorough marginalization of the Arab countries compared to their non-Arab periphery, particularly states like Turkey and Iran, but also Israel, then your hunch comes very late. Whether it was in his passages on Iran, Iraq, or terrorism, and even in his appeal to the Muslim world, Obama not once mentioned Egypt or Saudi Arabia, though he did mention their rival, Syria, just once.
Remember, in 1990 it was Egypt and Saudi Arabia that were the cornerstones (if you could call them that) of the Arab mobilization against Iraq when Saddam Hussein ordered his soldiers into Kuwait. When the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended in 1995, it was Egypt that led the Arab effort to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East (and failed). Throughout the 1990s, Egypt was the go-to place to talk about Palestinian-Israeli issues, and when Egyptians were the victims of Islamist violence during the 1990s, it was the go-to place to hold anti-terrorism summits, for example the one at Sharm al-Sheikh in 1996.
That Obama mentioned these topics, and others, in Ankara did not mean that it is time to write Egypt’s obituary. But with Mubarak now an old man, still sitting atop a political system seemingly incapable of renewing itself in pluralistically invigorating ways, and with no end in sight to the Saudi gerontocracy, it is not surprising that Obama should have struck his highest notes in a country that is of the region but not quite in it—and therefore untainted by its irrepressible decline. The United States will continue to ally itself with Arab states to contain Iran, but as Obama made clear in his speech, and in his diplomatic initiatives in recent weeks, he relies much more on countries like Turkey and Russia to act as hooks on which to hang any international effort to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama sent a kind word to the world’s Muslims, and surely many in the Arab world applauded his lines. But what he was really telling them, intentionally or not, is that their region is changing, and it’s changing in ways that may soon turn the Arabs into secondary characters in their own narrative, because their regimes simply seem unable to change.
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