Monday, April 6, 2009

Obama to Turkey: "Evet" We Can

After charming his way through Europe, President Barack Obama has now worked his magic on Turkey. He smartly started his day in Ankara with the traditional visit to Ataturk’s mausoleum, followed by an all smiles meeting with president Abdullah Gul and a visit to parliament. There he met with leaders of opposition parties – including, significantly, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), somebody Turkey’s prime minister refuses to sit down with – and gave a very good speech.

The speech, either directly or indirectly, touched on almost every important point and every difficult issue imaginable and clearly stated America's desire to patch things up with Turkey. Obama even gave a shout out to Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, two Turks who are making their mark in the NBA. He also used the speech to again remind the west – and his hosts – that Turkey is part of Europe and should become a member of the European Union.

From my Christian Science Monitor article about the speech:
As part of his effort to repair the strained Turkey-US strategic relationship, President Barack Obama today delivered a wide-ranging speech to Parliament, stressing the country's importance as one rooted in both Europe and the Muslim world and encouraging its leaders to continue on the path of democratic reform.

Obama also used his speech to reach out to the Muslim world, telling the applauding parliamentarians, "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."
"In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject. But I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect," the president said.

The two countries have clashed over the last several years, particularly regarding the 2003 American invasion of Iraq (Turkey refused to allow US troops to enter Iraqi territory via Turkey). During the Bush administration, Turks grew increasingly antagonistic, with only 9 percent holding a favorable view of the US according to polls in 2007 – down from 52 percent in 2002.

But Obama used his speech to reaffirm the Turkish-US relationship.

"Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together – and work together – to overcome the challenges of our time," the president said, listing a number of issues that concern both countries, among them terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security.
Obama also tackled the one issue that again could derail Turkish-US relations: how to deal with the 1915 massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. In his election campaign, Obama said he'd call the killings of the Armenians genocide. A resolution to do so was introduced in the US House of Representatives last month. Turkey and Armenia have recently been making progress on a deal that would restore diplomatic relations between them, open up their borders once again and – most importantly – provide Obama with a good excuse for going back on his campaign promise to call the killings genocide.

Here’s how Obama dealt with the issue in his speech:
Another issue that confronts all democracies as they move to the future is how we deal with the past. The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history. Facing the Washington Monument that I spoke of is a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed those who were enslaved even after Washington led our Revolution. Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.

Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.

We've already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working towards.
Tomorrow Obama visits the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, followed by a town hall meeting with Turkish university students. Stay tuned.

(Photo: Barack Obama speaking in the Turkish parliament in Ankara on April 6, 2009. By AP)

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