ANKARA - Turks' perception of the United States's leader has made a U-turn with the election of Barack Obama, from a historic low point in 2005 when his predecessor George W. Bush was among the least trustworthy leaders.
While only 9.2 percent of Turks thought favorably of the U.S. president four years ago, this number has risen to 39.2 percent with the ascension of Obama to the White House late January, according to a latest poll.
The Infacto Research Workshop conducted the survey Feb. 11 to 20 before the announcement of Obama's landmark trip to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama is expected in Turkey early next month, making Ankara one of his first presidential foreign stops.
"There is a serious difference between the results of this year's and 2005's surveys. The public appears to hold strong credit for Obama," Emre Erdoğan, founding partner of Infakto, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
He said the difference in public opinion had nothing to do with the public's political tendency because the survey revealed that the grassroots of Turkish political parties also looked warmly on Obama, with the highest support, at 57 percent, coming from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, electorate.
In the 2005 survey, Syrian President Bashar Assad was seen as the most reliable leader by 24.9 percent of the Turks to be followed by then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. One of the most striking findings of the survey was that four out of every 100 people saw al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a reliable leader.
Syria's Assad follows the U.S. president in the Turks’ perception of world leaders with 22.5 percent, according to the latest poll. Unlike past findings, this year radical Islamic movement Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Mashaal and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are on the list, while no major change was seen in the perception of bin Laden. Mashaal was found reliable by 10 percent of Turks, Nasrallah by 5 percent and bin Ladin by 4.6 percent.
Although negative sentiments toward America’s leader have been reversed, the Turks still see the United States as a threat. The poll revealed that 44 percent of the Turks saw the United States as the biggest foe, seconded by Israel, a newcomer to the Turks' enemy list. "The question that needs to be answered is if the Turks' confidence in Obama could reflect positively on Turkish-American ties," said Erdoğan.
He said the Turks, who became one of the most anti-American nations in the world in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003, held Bush and the Republicans responsible for the worsening of bilateral ties. According to the poll, 33.7 percent said the U.S. government was responsible for "bad relations," while 28.8 percent put the blame on Bush, 15.3 percent on the Turkish government and 11 percent on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
"Turks' perceptions of the United States were largely shaped by Bush," said Erdoğan. He said for Turks, the most pressing foreign policy issue was the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, rather than the fight against al-Qaeda or any other internationally blacklisted terrorist group. The government's zigzags in relations with Washington were also to blame because strategic ties were hijacked by the terror problem, while other major issues remained on the peripheries, Erdoğan said. Relations with Washington have been strained over the Iraq war and presence of the PKK in northern Iraq. The United States had refused to take concrete steps to eliminate the PKK presence despite repeated Turkish appeals. "Any future that will be taken by Obama to help Turkey combat the PKK could have positive implications on Turkish-American relations," said Erdoğan. The survey showed 22.9 percent of the Turks had a positive opinion about the United States and 37.5 percent about Americans, which is the same with the results four year's ago. But 51.6 percent think favorably of Obama.
First genuine test
"Obama will have his first genuine test before the Turkish public during a visit to Turkey early April," said Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Erdoğan said the visiting U.S. Representative Robert Wexler and Clinton’s comments in Ankara coupled with initial signals about the presidential visit, showed the new administration had a different view of Turkey compared to the post-Sept. 11 era. Hailed as a role model and moderate Islamic country that could play a major role in the now-dead Broader Middle East Initiative by the Bush administration, Turkey was highlighted as a secular democratic country in successive remarks of officials from the Obama team. Turkey's former ambassador to Washington Nüzhet Kandemir said the new Obama administration was approaching Turkey wisely and Clinton's visit brought positive results, but he warned this could be deemed unsatisfactory by the Turks who would rather wait and see action. "Obama’s policies are likely to gradually remove worries in the public toward the United States but it would be irrational to expect an abrupt change," said Kandemir.
The poll also unveiled two-thirds of the respondents failed to answer the question, "Who's Turkey's most important friend?" an indicator of the Turks' confusion. 5 percent cited Azerbaijan was Turkey's most important friend, 4 percent said the United States, 3.7 percent said Iran, 3.7 percent said Germany and 2.6 percent said Pakistan.
Another interesting result from the survey was that 46 percent said Turkey has no common values with Europe.