ANKARA: The future with Obama

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
Feb 15 2009

The future with Obama
by
Ã-zlem Türköne*

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women
and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration
across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60
years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now
stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

These were the tremendous words of newly elected US President Barack
Obama in his inaugural speech and they contain a very profound
meaning. On Jan. 20 a genuine historical moment was recorded in the
minds of all the world’s people: Obama was sworn in as the 44th
president of the United States and the nation’s first African-American
president.

As we have been passing through a tough chapter struggling to alter a
world economy in turmoil and deal with seemingly intractable foreign
policy challenges, Obama reminded us of a sense of hope and the
possibility of better days to come. We really needed that.

As in other countries, many people in Turkey joined the worldwide
celebrations over the US president’s inauguration as the Obama era
officially began. A statistical glimpse of hope from a poll conducted
for the BBC World Service indicates that the percentage of Turkish
people who believe Obama will strengthen US relations with the rest of
the world has risen from 11 percent to 51 percent over the last six
months.

Turks’ expectation of Obama

This means that the Turkish people expect Obama to take important
steps toward saving the United States’ image in Turkey and helping
revitalize the relationship between the two countries.

So there is a new wave of sympathy rising, as if the darkness that has
covered the world for the past eight years is finally about to be
lifted.

The specifics of Obama’s foreign policy have not yet
materialized. Hence, they are full of uncertainties. Given the
high-profile problems of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia, will the
US want Turkey to play an important role in the Obama era?

One should also note that there must be a kind of harmony between
Obama’s perception of the issues regarding Turkey’s concerns and the
expectations of the Turkish government, as well as the Turkish people.

Bearing this in mind, it will be helpful to categorize these
expectations and perceptions as follows:

The questionable approach of the new administration to the so-called
"Armenian genocide" issue remains the main roadblock to improving
Turkish-US relations. It is still unknown whether President Obama and
Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom have expressed support for the
Armenian position in the past, will back any kind of recognition
again.

The second important issue on the common agenda is related to the
previously announced plans for a rapid withdrawal of US forces from
Iraq and an increase in pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in
Afghanistan.

Where does Turkey fit in to the Obama administration’s plans?

Maybe it would be better to analyze this by recalling Turkey’s
participation in the history of the region’s crises.

Turkey is located at one of the most important strategic crossroads in
the world today and its position is very close to many flashpoints for
ongoing conflicts. The potential threats that are on the top of the
agenda have led Turkey to preserve the foundations of peace and
stability in the broader region and the predominance of the culture of
reconciliation and common values that can be found within its stable
democracy and dynamic economy. It is customary for Turkey to
contribute to international efforts seeking peaceful resolutions to
disputes and rebuild peace and stability in regions suffering from
conflict.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) is one these
significant initiatives. Launched by the secretary-general of the
United Nations in July 2005, it aims to facilitate harmony and
dialogue by emphasizing the common values of different cultures and
religions. On anyone’s shortlist, ensuring Arab-Israeli peace,
stabilizing a unified Iraq, maintaining stability and security in
Lebanon and coping with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program must top
the list of priorities. We have already been actively engaged in all
of these problems.

The most recent example is the peace talks between Syria and
Israel. These talks started and were conducted in an indirect way,
which means the talks proceeded through Turkey.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have dealt with all the groups
involved. Turkey is one of the only countries that has good relations
with Israel and with Arab countries at the same time. This is
meaningful.

Also, in the Caucasus, another key region afflicted with complicated
issues, such as the Russia-Georgia conflict, Turkey paid close
attention and took delicate care as a significant actor, feeling
responsibility and taking initiative.

Turkey and the US have worked together in all of these critical
regions and their relations have expanded and evolved over the decades
from a military alliance to a "strategic partnership" based on common
interests and mutual values.

Today Turkey and the US are working together to combat terrorism,
bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world, support critical
transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, stabilize the Balkans and the
Caucasus, pursue peace in the Middle East, integrate the former Soviet
republics of Central Asia into the community of democratic states and
transport Caspian energy resources to world markets.

Turkey has joined the US and Iraqi governments in a trilateral effort
to eliminate enduring terrorist threats in the region. This effort,
along with Turkey’s assistance in Iraq’s democratic transition,
exemplifies its continuing leadership in promoting global security and
stability.

However, there are some concerns about the withdrawal of American
troops from Iraq. After the US troops go back home we — Turkey —
will be staying here, as the neighbors of the Iraqi people. As
Americans watch news about the Middle East on TV across the ocean, we
will be the ones seeing the ongoing chaos nearby firsthand. It is,
therefore, no wonder that a peaceful Iraq is as important to Turkey as
it is to the US. Turkey can play a key role in helping to stabilize
Iraq, particularly its Kurdish region. Moving away from militarized US
policies in favor of diplomacy will allocate new roles to the region’s
actors and this new era will resonate well with Turkey’s new role as a
regional peacemaker, our country hopes.

For Iraq, we believe the solution has to be a political one. Political
reconstruction will be the key concept for Iraq. We are talking with
all groups in Iraq without any exception.

Coming to the other issue, Obama’s intention to increase pressure on
the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, we can say that it most
likely means arguing for more resources and more troops to finish the
fight against the terrorists.

Bearing in mind that Turkey, which ranks second — just after the US
— in the number of forces available for NATO missions, did not
preserve its military support for the organization in many cases where
its help had been requested, some wonder whether Turkey will agree to
send more troops to the region and, if so, whether it will attempt to
draw advantages from its contribution in return. We cannot blame
Turkey for acting too emotionally because, in the past, much has been
asked of Turkey but, from Turkey’s standpoint, not enough has been
given.

Turkey and NATO

A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey fought side by side with US forces
in Korea to stop the spread of communism in Asia. Turkey defended
NATO’s southeastern flank during the Cold War, protecting vital
Western interests in the Middle East and guarding against Soviet
access to the Mediterranean. From this point of view, it is not asking
for much, only for a more empathetic approach to be taken.

Aside from these concerns, the Obama administration is likely to take
a much more active role in trying to resolve problems in the Middle
East. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an has also expressed
hope that Obama would contribute to international peace and reiterated
his belief that Turkey and the US would maintain their strategic
relations.

Turkish-American relations have a history of more than 200 years,
albeit with occasional ups and downs, but always with the aim of
reaching the common goals of peace and freedom in the world. Relations
between the two countries have always been based on shared values and
mutual trust. This is how things were in the past; now the threat of
terrorism is higher than before and there seems no change in the
tremendous instability of the Middle East. So the world is very
different now than it was in the last century, when Turkey was always
there for the US. While all these developments have been occurring,
Turkey itself has also changed. It has more confidence and is now
determined to play a leadership role in the Middle East and the
Caucasus.

But if there is one thing that has not changed much, it is the vital
importance of the relationship between Turkey and the United States
for our policy, because there is indeed a synergy between us built
upon decades of relations and mutual confidence and now reaffirmed by
shared visions. It is our hope that this synergy will be saved and
carried to the future by the hopeful wind of change that has come upon
us with the beginning of the Obama era.

*Ã-zlem Türköne is an Ä°stanbul deputy for the
Justice and Development Party (AK Party) working in the party’s
Foreign Affairs Department and deputy chairperson of the Turkish
delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
(PACE).

15 February 2009, Sunday

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