ANKARA: Obama and Ankara

Zaman Online, Turkey
July 28 2008

Obama and Ankara

Ã-MER TAÅ?PINAR [email protected] Columnists

Last week, as I was watching Barack Obama on TV, giving his Berlin
speech in front of 200,000 people, a disturbing question came to
mind. What would happen if Obama gave a speech in Turkey? Would the
crowds be as large and enthusiastic? One side of me says, "Yes, we
can!" I can’t help but think that the Turkish people must be really
excited about the prospect of radical change in the United States.
After all, the Bush presidency will not be remembered with nostalgia
among Turks. There is plenty of evidence illustrating this. For
starters, according to global opinion polls, Turkey is consistently
the number-one country in terms of dislike for the Bush
administration’s policies. Logically, in a country like Turkey, there
must be a lot of sympathy for a new American president who represents
by the sheer facts of his name, race, ideas and overall demeanor a
mind-blowing contrast to everything that George W. Bush has come to
symbolize. Add to this the fact that Turkey itself is a country where
the power struggle is often defined as one between the "white elite"
and the "black masses" of Anatolia. Wouldn’t black Turks embrace their
American brother? Think twice before getting carried away. Yes, under
normal circumstances such parallels between Turkey and America would
strike a chord and yes, under normal circumstances Obama would be the
favorite of the Turkish people, mainly because he would be seen as the
underdog defying the American system.

Yet one needs to emphasize the term "under normal circumstances." An
Obama visit to Turkey may not draw hundreds of thousands of cheering
crowds to the street. The reason is simple and painful. Whenever
Obama’s presidency is discussed in Turkey, there is a big Turkish
elephant in the room: the Armenian "genocide" issue. Obama’s position
is well known: He is committed to the Armenian cause and has promised
the Armenian-American community that he will support recognition of
the "genocide." Now that’s a show-stopper for Turkey. The Turkish
press picked up the story from day one and began to ring alarm
bells. It did not take very long for Obama’s name to become synonymous
with the Armenian lobby in the eyes of Turks. Similarly, the
Turkish-American community in the United States has become very
uncomfortable with the prospect of an Obama presidency. A senior
Democratic member from the US Congress who happens to be a major Obama
supporter told me last week that his staffers are already getting an
earful from the Turkish community in his district. No wonder most
Turkish-American organizations lined up to support Hillary Clinton
during the Democratic primaries.

It is also no wonder that both the government in Ankara and the
Turkish state apparatus (Note for dummies: government and state can
mean different things in Turkish politics, especially these days¦)
appear to be on the same page about Obama: They prefer his opponent
Republican candidate Senator John McCain. There is no major surprise
here. The Turkish establishment has always had a deeply rooted love
affair with Republicans. The roots of this martial romance — which
appears to have survived the Bush years — go back to the good old
days of the Cold War era, when there was no daylight between the
Turkish military and the Pentagon. Iraq was of course a major bump in
the road. But there are still ongoing financial reasons for this
marriage of convenience to continue. For some mysterious reason
(!)Turkey’s best friends in Washington are always the defense
companies; and the best friends of the defense companies are the
Republicans. You get the picture, right? (Note for dummies No. 2:
Republicans never cut America’s defense budget.) Anyways, I
digress. The crux of the matter for Turkey is the following: Obama is
a Democrat who supports the Armenian cause whereas McCain is a
Republican who values Turkey’s strategic importance much more than the
votes of Armenian-Americans. This is how Ankara perceives the

As a result, Turkey is once again out of tune with the rest of the
world. The whole world is going nuts about Obama while Ankara is stuck
in history. Is there a way to remind Turkey that there are more
important things in Turkish-American relations than the Armenian
issue? This may be an uphill battle. But one way to do so is to focus
on Obama’s popularity in Europe. Imagine both McCain and Obama
lobbying on Turkey’s behalf with EU leaders. To whom do you think
Europeans would prefer to listen? Take a second look at the crowd
listening to Obama in Berlin.