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Obama, Turkey and History

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For those of us who have lived abroad for many years and despaired of the way the image and reputation of the United States had been tarnished during the past eight years, it was a welcome relief to hear the message delivered by Barack Obama in Turkey. From the podium of the National Assembly in Ankara, he spoke not only to Turks, but to the entire Muslim world and he carved out an image of a global statesman.

The United States, he said, "is not and never will be at war with Islam" and that " America's relationship cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda." That had to to resonate from Morocco on the Atlantic to Indonesia on the Java Sea. He drew generous applause by reminding Turkey's politicians, its president, prime minister as well as its generals and admirals in the audience that "the United States has been enriched by its Muslim Americans" and that "many other Americans have Muslims in their families or they have lived in a Muslim majority country. I know," he said, "because I am one of them."

The president pledged to support Turkey's admission to the European Union. He urged dialogue with the Republic of Armenia and by inference with Greek Cypriots to bring peace and stability to what until now has been the divided island of Cyprus. He cited Turkey's friendly relations with Israel and hoped that ways could be found to bring peace with it and the Palestinians and a resolution of its own differences with Kurdish opponents both in neighboring Iraq and Turkey. But he was quick to say the United States opposed the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, as it does all forms of terrorism.

Obama was sensitive enough, as few American presidents have been, to acknowledge Turkey's contribution to the United Nations effort during the Cold War, something the Turks felt had been forgotten for too long. I reported on the Turkish brigade of some 4500 troops that fought alongside the U.S. 25th Infantry Division in 1951 to repel Chinese invaders during the Korean War.

Important as it was in symbolic terms, the Turks' willingness to allow the United States to use monitoring devices based in Turkey to spy on the Soviet Union was vital throughout the Cold War.

U.S. electronic and satellite eavesdropping enabled both the CIA and the National Security Agency to detect every nuclear weapons test conducted by the U.S.S.R from its highly secret base at Baikonur. The Russians were aware of the Turkish collaboration, but they chose to ignore it rather than provoke a more serious confrontation with the United States.

Turkey's commitment went even further. It allowed the United States to base its high-flying U-2 spy planes on Turkish soil from which they could be flown on to Peshawar in Pakistan for overflights of the Soviet Union. One of those missions was flown by the American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down by the Russians on May 1, 1960. During one of the most dramatic episodes of the Cold War, President Eisenhower denied that the flight had ever occurred, But to U.S. embarrassment that claim was debunked by Moscow when it unveiled the wreckage of the U-2 and then Powers at his trial in Moscow. Throughout Powers' imprisonment and his involvement in an eventual prisoner exchange for a key Soviet agent, never a word was ever mentioned of the important role played by Turkey.