Stephen Schlesinger Headshot

Turkey Awaits Its Hero Obama

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I have just returned from a eight day visit to Turkey last week and I can confirm that, for anyone who may still question it, Barack Obama, as is true in probably most countries around the world, is now considered in Turkey to be the virtual "president" of our planet. The latest polling data in that nation shows that, among its populace of some 70 million people, Obama is by far the most popular leader on the globe. But Obama's considerable sway will not necessarily translate into his persuading Turkish government to share all of his concerns when he arrives in the country in the next few days.

It is true that Obama will be visiting a nation that is a strong member of NATO, and that he will be meeting with a Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development party, a moderate Muslim political grouping who, among other things, sees the US as his strongest ally and is trying to engineer Turkey's entry into the European Union. Second, Obama will be attending and speaking at the UN's Alliance of Civilizations conference in Istanbul which is seeking to bring together the world's religions and engage in peaceful intercultural dialogues.

But Obama must be careful about a number of things. First, he is going to be under some misimpression if he thinks that he is visiting his first "Muslim" nation as president -- which some in the American media have represented as the purpose of his visit. Most Turks thinks of their country as a secular one, not a religious one. They may be a Muslim-majority state, but they are tolerant of all creeds and faiths, and are not driven by religious dictates. In short, they do not want to be seen as representative of any Islamic movement.

Second, Obama will be mistaken, too, if he thinks he can convince the Turkish government to buy into his anti-Iranian policy. Iran is Turkey's next door neighbor and, after many fierce battles through the centuries, they have long resolved their differences peacefully and have lived companionably with one another for hundreds of years. The Turks have no desire or intention of upsetting that arrangement.

Third, though this issue is unlikely to come up, Obama will find that this country is not yet ready to deal with the issue of the Armenian disappearances in 1915-1916 during the final days of the Ottoman empire. This is a matter which the US Congress periodically attempts to pass resolutions on, denouncing Turkey.

Fourth, the Turks still remain very upset over not being admitted to the European Union and about the anti-Muslim sentiment of many of the EU members. They resent, in particular, that a former Communist country like Bulgaria, which is poor and backward, has gotten into the EU and they have not, after decades of trying.

Fifth, the Turks see themselves as primarily peacemakers -- along the lines advocated by their founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. In their complicated neighborhood, they are trying to bring together Israelis and Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans, Sunnis and Shiites, etc. Finally, sixth, they are concerned about some militant Kurds in Iraq who are fighting to carve out a Kurdish nation in Turkey. But none of these are major issues likely to disrupt an enduring US-Turkish relationship.