In the wake of some desultory results over the weekend at the NATO and European Union summits, President Barack Obama is in Turkey Monday and Tuesday making a hard bid for what could be a huge new alliance for America.
The US has long had cordial relations with Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO. But after the end of the Cold War, things drifted between the two countries, only to turn downright frosty during the Bush/Cheney years.
The principal problem was the previous administration's insistence on the Iraq War, with the overarching problem that of the administration's dominant neoconservative ideology lending the distinct atmospherics of a "clash between civilizations."
Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start, and continues to describe the Iraq adventure as a fateful distraction from the folks who actually attacked America on 9/11, provides a major antidote to the recent past between America and Turkey. As the Washington Post notes, a new poll in Turkey gives Obama a 52% approval rating, vastly higher than that of former President Bush.
When Obama was accorded the unusual honor of addressing the Turkish Parliament Monday morning in Ankara, he directly addressed the overarching problem: "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam," he declared.Obama honored the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who first gained fame for his role in defeating the plans of Winston Churchill at Gallipoli in World War I.
He's making some other major moves, honoring the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (who first gained fame for his role in defeating the plans of Winston Churchill at Gallipoli in World War I), meeting with international interfaith leaders, touring Istanbul's most famous mosque, holding a roundtable discussion with Turkish students, helping mediate the historic grievance between Turkey and Armenia, championing Turkey for membership in the European Union, and aiding Turkey in gaining more clout in NATO.
Turkey went along with the controversial choice of a new NATO secretary general, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, "After receiving information that our reservations have been addressed under the guarantorship of Obama."
The new secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, angered Muslims everywhere by championing the free speech rights of the so-called "Mohammed cartoons," which cast the founder of Islam in a disrespectful and, as some would have it, "blasphemous" light.
The cartoons, as those who championed them made clear, were intended to infuriate the Muslim world, which they did. Which, while certainly the right of anyone in a free society, is also fairly idiotic. Rasmussen is walking back the controversy by apologizing for the insensitivity of the cartoons. In addition, Turkey is getting a new deputy secretary general of NATO and Turkish generals in more senior command positions.
What Obama wants in return is the sort of alliance that Bush and Cheney thought they could muscle Turkey into in 2003, when they insisted on Turkish involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The strategists who miscalculated so badly about what would happen if they toppled Saddam left one of the most advanced divisions in the US Army bobbing off the coast of Turkey for weeks, waiting for a passage that would never come.
Obama seems to see Turkey, which has friendly relations with Israel, as potentially a much stronger partner than any other NATO nation, perhaps even Britain.
Turkey is arguably the most powerful militarily and the most balanced economically in the Islamic world, and perhaps the most stable. And unlike Saudi Arabia, it hasn't had a vested interest in feeding and off-loading homegrown jihadists to wreak havoc elsewhere in the world.In his weekend video/radio address from Air Force One, Obama discussed the challenges facing an interconnected world and the critical importance of international alliances.
In the new emerging Obama conception of geopolitics, it may be that it is Turkey, strategically situated on the Bosporus, which provides even more needed help with the newer crises of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the traditional crises of the Middle East, as well as a watchful counterweight to Russia.
Most geopolitical relationships are like fairly straightforward sandwiches; a two-dimensional set of mutual interests wrapped between the bread of obvious rhetoric.
This may become something much more multi-faceted, based also on what Obama symbolizes about the future of America and what Turkey symbolizes about the past of Islam.
While Obama is spending half his time in Turkey in the new capital of Ankara, it is Istanbul, a city founded nearly 2700 years ago as Byzantium, that is more symbolically potent. Later known as Nova Roma and Constantinople, Istanbul -- the only city which is at once both in Asia and Europe -- was at different points in history the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. The first symbolizing Islamic influence in a multicultural empire, the last symbolizing an Islamic empire, and shot through it all the deep culture of a city that predates any of the great cities of the West by many centuries.
If this alliance is pulled off, the rather meager, and very predictable, outcomes of the NATO and European Union summits over the weekend will be even less consequential.
NATO is sending some 5000 more troops to Afghanistan. But they're not combat troops. Most are short-timers, to provide security around the August national elections. The rest are trainers for the Afghan Army and security forces. That's helpful, but not what is needed immediately to beat back the resurgent Taliban forces.Obama gave a very well-received speech Sunday in Prague on the need to sharply reduce nuclear weapons.
As for the European Union summit, well, it provided a great opportunity for Obama to make a big speech in Prague about the need to sharply reduce nuclear weapons, something his administration has begun to negotiate with Moscow with the expectation of a deal by the end of the year. But the Europeans, in part because of Britain's objections, didn't even follow through on their own suggestion at the G-20 summit a few days ago in London that a new regime of centralized financial regulation be implemented.
None of this is surprising. NATO existed to block the Soviet Union from a feared invasion of Western Europe. That mission was accomplished nearly two decades ago. NATO has never before operated outside of Europe, and, with the arguable exception of dealing with crises in the Balkans, has been a totally self-interested security alliance.
It's good that Obama got what he got from NATO, which is more than the previous administration accomplished. But it's clear that if America is to have a powerful, stable ally besides Britain in South Asia and the Middle East, that will be Turkey.