President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey earlier this week has opened a new chapter in relations between the two countries that were severely strained under the previous administration of President Bush.
It was clear from the various remarks made by President Obama during his joint press conference with President Abdullah Gül, his address to the Turkish Parliament, and his meeting with a group of university students in Istanbul, that he had done his homework and studied Turkey and the Turks well.
For example, by underlining this country’s secular democracy on various occasions he openly signaled that the period of viewing Turkey as a moderately Islamic country was over for Washington. It will be recalled that that characterization by the Bush administration had angered the secular establishment in Turkey, which is highly sensitive over this issue, as well as many Turks. The new administration in Washington has now fine-tuned its approach, and is referring to Turkey to as "a secular country with a predominantly Islamic population," which is what most Turks want to hear.
It was also noteworthy that he did not refer to a "strategic relationship" in his various remarks, but talked instead about a "new model" for relations between Turkey and the United States, trying in this way to also signal that we are on the verge of a new period in ties which requires a new definition. His remarks on Turkey’s European Union bid, however, were among the most appreciated of his utterances. He had already said prior to coming to Ankara that Turkey should be accepted as a member by the EU. Although this seriously chagrinned French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel, President Obama’s insistence on this while in Turkey was noteworthy.
His remarks in this context to the effect that if Turkey is in NATO, and has been responsible for European security, then there is no reason why it should not be in the EU will no doubt have ruffled many feathers in Europe again. Especially in the wake of the "Rasmussen crisis" during last week’s NATO summit. But it touches on a basic truth that Turks will no doubt be referring to more in the coming days, as Turkey’s role in the alliance gains added importance.
President Obama also touched on the Armenian and Kurdish issues. But he did so in a delicate manner and by providing examples from the history of the United States, thus trying to allay any notion that Turkey was being singled out over these issues. Not everyone was happy about this and it did not take long for ultranationalist politicians and their supporters to lambaste the U.S. president over his remarks about facing up to the Armenian issue, as well as his reference to the Kurds as a "minority."
The subject is still being debated hotly in some circles, but it is unlikely that this debate will be able to overshadow the overall success of this visit. In the meantime, many, both in Turkey and the Islamic world, applauded his remarks to the effect that the United States was not, and would not, be at war against Islam. His reference to the fact that there were Muslims in his family also, a reference to his father, was also noteworthy given that there are those who will object to this in his own country. This is why they were not only taken as courageous, but also as a further indication of his genuine and honest approach.
Having said all this, it must be noted that the ways of the world are many and the issues that Turkey and the United States will have to confront in the future will require delicate handling. Heading the list of these issues are of course Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, there is no magic wand that will make thing perfect overnight. This is why Turkish American relations will have to continue to be worked on at every stage. President Obama’s visit has not only set a highly positive tone in this respect, but has established a new format for ties both in the bilateral and multilateral spheres.
Now the two countries will have to move in unison to take these ties further, and make them matter for the world, given their importance with respect to so many issues of global interest.