TURKISH-AMERICAN RELATIONS COULD CHILL COME JANUARY
Newsweek / Washington Post
Dec 4 2008
Perhaps the entire world has faith that Barack Obama’s historic victory
will redefine U.S. foreign policy and fix the blemished image of the
country abroad. However, there is one nation – in fact a close NATO
ally – that has reservations: Turkey.
During his visit to Columbia University in November, I got a chance
to ask the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whether he has
concerns about Barack Obama’s close stance to the acceptance of what
Mr. Erdogan calls "the incidents of 1915" as genocide.
While congratulating Mr. Obama’s victory, Mr. Erdogan sent a critical
message to the president-elect. He reiterated his expectation from
the new administration to pay attention to Turkish sensitivities
regarding the issue, for the sake of bilateral relations.
Turkey believes that deaths resulted from inter-communal conflicts and
such events were common occurrence during World War I. Therefore, the
country strongly rejects the Armenian view, which claims that over
a million Armenians were systematically massacred by the Ottoman
Empire. Armenians commemorate the genocide every year in April,
which always proves to be a difficult month for Turkish foreign policy.
Controversy between the two neighbors is one of the most challenging
issues Turkey faces in the international arena today. Turkey shut
down its border, as well as channels of communication with Armenia
15 years ago due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Perhaps Turkey’s worries are not in vain. In a letter to the Armenian
National Committee of America in May 2008, Mr. Obama wrote the
following: "I share your view that the United States must recognize
the events of 1915 to 1923, carried out by the Ottoman Empire, as
genocide […] We must recognize this tragic reality."
The president-elect also said, "The Bush Administration’s refusal to
do so is inexcusable, and I will continue to speak out in an effort
to move the Administration to change its position." Mr. Obama repeated
his dedication to the cause several times during his election campaign.
During his talk, I observed that Mr. Erdogan took a cautious stance
towards a possible move by the Obama administration. He reiterated
that the controversy "should be left to the historians to decide."
He expressed nonchalance at the influence of the Armenian
Diaspora on Washington, which he characterized as "cheap, political
lobbying." Mr. Erdogan added that he hoped "the new U.S. administration
would take into account Turkey’s efforts."
During his visit to the U.S. for the G-20 visit, Mr. Erdogan got
together with representatives of the president-elect’s team, and it
is yet unknown whether Turkey communicated such worries to them.
Perhaps a possibly changing paradigm of Washington-Ankara relations
is not the only challenge that will put Turkish foreign policy under
Turkey, which secured a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council
47 years after its application, will face international pressure about
the issue, say -if the question of Nagorno-Karabakh comes to the table.
When I asked the Prime Minister about whether, in such a case,
Turkey would follow the national policy or be more in line with the
United Nations’ approach to the problem, his answer revealed Turkey’s
internal dilemma in shaping its foreign policy.
On one hand, the country of 70 million people, is speeding up
its efforts to become a key player in the region by mediating
Israeli-Syrian talks and recently proposing to do so for U.S.-Iran
relations. On the other hand, Turkey’s own historico-political
narratives regarding what the Prime Minister calls "the incidents
of 1915," clash with the views of the majority of UN member states,
which casts a shadow on Turkey’s efforts to assume a peaceful mediator
role in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
Therefore, Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would "contribute to speed up
efforts for settlement of the problem," but still felt the urge to send
a message to the world community to not to "buy into the games of the
diaspora," while tackling the Armenian-Azeri problems in the region.
It is likely though, that the Security Council members would hear
the most interesting conversations about the future of the region,
if Nagorno-Karabakh takes its place on the Council’s agenda. And
those conversations would be even more intriguing, if the Obama
administration decides to shape its foreign policy in line with
Whichever direction the relations evolve in the upcoming months,
it is clear that Turkey has a lot of work to do to get ready for
possible blizzards this spring, as things might not be so rosy with
Mr. Obama at the White House.
Afsin Yurdakul is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s
School of Journalism, having previously worked as a world news reporter
and editor at Turkey’s news portal NTV-MSNBC.