American president Barack Obama arrived in Turkey last night, and perhaps not a minute too soon. The last eight years have not been kind to the Turkey-U.S. relationship, and Obama's mission is an important one: to help repair this important, though frayed, strategic alliance.
From my Christian Science Monitor article previewing Obama's Turkey visit:
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........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."
[You can read the whole article here.]
(Photo: President Obama arriving in Ankara on April 5, 2009. By AP)