I had the chance yesterday to attend Barack Obama's town hall meeting with some 100 Turkish university students. The event was broadcast live on Turkish television and seemed to me like another successful public diplomacy effort, particularly in a country where America's image (or at least that of the American government) had sunk very low. Obama clearly has star power -- "I love him!" one young woman told me -- but listened carefully to the students' questions and delivered serious, but down to earth, answers.
From my piece about the event in today's Christian Science Monitor:
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...."
....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. "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.
"It's a different style, but I think it's effective," says Berna Ozkale, a senior studying chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University who was among the students at the town-hall meeting.
"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."
(Photo: Barack Obama during his April 7, 2009 town hall meeting with Turkish students in Istanbul. By Yigal Schleifer)