President Barack Obama’s Armenian commemoration statement on April 24 appears to have brought an abrupt end to the honeymoon in Turkish-U.S. relations that started with his election and peaked with his recent high-level visit to Turkey.
This development also makes short shrift of the elated remarks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign-policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoğlu (soon to be foreign minister, if one believes the Ankara gossip.) During his recent visit to Washington, Davutoğlu said that Turkish-American ties were entering their best period ever with the advent of the Obama administration, a remark that now appears to have been premature.
Since President Obama’s statement has encouraged the Armenian lobby in the U.S. to push even harder for passage of the Armenian genocide-recognition bill introduced in Congress, relations could even be heading in the opposite direction.
In trying to please two opposing sides while serving his own country’s interests, President Obama was already faced with a thankless task. As it turned out, he failed to please either the Armenian or the Turkish side, and it is uncertain that he served the United States’ best interests either, if indeed those require that Washington improve the ties with Ankara that were spoiled under President George W. Bush.
Judging by the harsh Ğ and, as far as Turks are concerned, extremely biased Ğ remarks in his Armenian statement, it is clear that Obama’s advisors had told him he could say just about anything as long as he did not use the "g"-word. He thus went ahead and described the concept of genocide without actually using the word, apparently feeling Ğ misguidedly, it now seems in retrospect Ğ that this would be fine as far as Turkey was concerned. But the angry reactions emanating from throughout Turkish society, including those from President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the opposition, clearly point to a serious miscalculation.
And thus, we are seeing a return to the loveless marriage between Ankara and Washington, one that continues based only on pragmatic considerations.
It is also clear that the positive atmosphere created by President Obama’s visit to Turkey, and that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before him, which seemed to be dispelling the chronic anti-Americanism in this country, has also evaporated in one fell swoop. As one columnist suggested earlier in the week, Turkish-American ties are back to what they were under President Bush, albeit with a different color. All this is reminiscent of the Turkish saying, "Poking an eye out while trying to trim an eyebrow." This basically means ending up doing the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing. As noted, the ties between Ankara and Washington will, of course, remain. But it is clear that the Erdoğan government will have to keep a close eye on public opinion as specific issues of vital interest to Washington arise.
One can also expect that Ankara will be in no hurry to submit to pressure from Washington to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia and open its borders in the shortest possible time. The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process will also continue, of course. But given the dissatisfaction it has created, both in Turkey and in Azerbaijan, the government will not have any sense of urgency on this issue either.
Meanwhile, the genocide bill in the U.S. Congress will continue to hang like the Sword of Damocles over the efforts at rapprochement. The negative approach taken to the rapprochement process by the Armenian diaspora and the ultra-nationalist Dashnak party in Armenia will also be used by Ankara to buy breathing space in its negotiations with Yerevan.
Put briefly, President Obama’s statement has, wittingly or unwittingly, put the Armenian issue at the center of Turkish-U.S. relations once again, and has ensured that this will remain a problematic topic for some time to come. Since it is expected that Obama cannot, under these circumstances, tone down his April 24 message next year, or take a determined stand against a genocide resolution in Congress when it comes up, either this year or next year, the problem will linger on as a serious hindrance to the two countries' ties.