ANKARA: Obama, hope, change and headaches

Zaman Online, Turkey
July 27 2008

Obama, hope, change and headaches


The two trips could not have been more different. When President
George W. Bush came to ?Ä?°stanbul for a NATO summit in 2004, the city
was locked down tighter than Baghdad’s Green Zone. It was not a visit
to the city and its people, but a bubble descending from outer
space. Security was tight enough for Barack Obama as he scooted
through northern Europe, but it’s tight when the Rolling Stones go on
tour, which is what the presidential nominee’s speech in front of
200,000 Berliners vaguely resembled. He is not president yet, but the
election seems Obama’s to lose, not McCain’s to win, and it’s the
brave soul who believes he will drop the ball.
The Obama message, "the world doesn’t have to hate the US," was
intended to win him a greater share of the center of the center ground
next November. Inadvertently, he confirmed that he had Europe’s
vote. "O-barmy for Barack" was plastered over the front page of
(London’s) The Sun alongside the higher-brow press. This popularity,
and an Obama presidency in general, poses a curious challenge for
Turkey — and not for the bizarre reason that he might refrain from
twisting the arm of the House of Representatives if it tried to
recognize an Armenian genocide. The truth is that Turkey has grown
strangely comfortable with an unpopular American president.

Although President Bush does not actually appear as a co-defendant on
the charge sheet in front of the Constitutional Court, the United
States is named as being behind some of the misdeeds for which the
prosecutor wants the governing Justice and Development Party (AK
Party) shut down. The prosecutor’s office, in common with the sinister
Ergenekon plotters (who paradoxically are themselves up for trial),
sees Washington as trying to turn Turkey into a tame Islamic state
that can do its bidding to implement a Greater Middle East Project. It
will come as something of a shock to have a US president who renounces
imperial ambitions and intends to do what Turkey publicly wants but
privately fears: allow the Iraqis to solve their own problems
themselves. And imagine Ankara having to blame its own policies and
not Washington’s sinister intentions for trouble in its own Southeast.

For a little while at least, Turkey might even be forced to suspend
its faith in plots and conspiracies. For a little while, too, those
who believe they can manipulate Turkish public opinion with plots and
conspiracies might decide they might need to adopt a different

Those weaned in Turkey on the politics of conspiracy and cynicism are
not about to take Obama’s commitment to change seriously. They pray he
is not the goody-two-shoes he appears. In time, America will be up to
its old tricks, they speculate, even if its new president looks
trimmer in his suit and has a far less goofy smile. But then Turkey
will be desperately out of step, certainly with the crowds who cheered
Obama in Berlin, and probably with the rest of the world. A
charismatic Obama will set a tone that will leave many Turkish
politicians feeling like the homely girl at the ball who doesn’t get
asked to dance. Imagine Deniz Baykal declaring to adoring throngs that
he believes in change or Devlet Bah?Ã?§eli (famous for having thrown a
hangman’s noose into the crowd at an election rally) campaigning on a
program of hope. And of course, a snap poll is no remote possibility
in Turkey if the Constitutional Court does its worst. Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdo?Ä?an has always been a feel-good candidate, at
least for those who voted him in, and certainly when his party came to
power in 2002 it brought with it an expectation of great
transformation. However even if the judges decide to acquit both him
and his party, he will have been bruised by the whole affair. Next to
Bush, he looked spruce, but he will have to consider how to be in the
same room as Obama without looking like yesterday’s man.