Obama Mending Relations With Turkey

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President Obama is on a two-day visit to Turkey to try to rebuild ties with the secular Muslim ally that was deeply alienated by Bush administration foreign policies. Turkey seems ready to welcome the new American leader, but Obama may have to negotiate through some tough spots along the way.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro. President Obama addresses Turkey's parliament today. He's visiting the secular Muslim ally for two days to rebuild ties with the country. The Bush administration's foreign policies often alienated Turkey. Now, the country seems ready to welcome the new American leader, as long as Mr. Obama can negotiate some stumbling blocks along the way. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Ankara.

PETER KENYON: Turkey has long known the wealth and warfare that come with its geostrategic location. Bordering Europe to the west and Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia to the east, Turkey has important ties to many of the hot spots President Obama will have to deal with. In recent years, Turkey had arguably the highest level of anti-Americanism in the world, largely due to the invasion of Iraq.

Turkey suffered not only the wrath of the Bush administration for opposing the invasion, but for several years a lack of co-operation on Kurdish militants who attacked southern Turkey from Kurdish northern Iraq. But analysts say Turkish animosity toward Washington declined sharply when Mr. Obama was elected. Professor Meliha Altunisik at Mideast Technical University says this presidential visit is in itself a message, especially since Mr. Obama seems to have dropped the Bush-era rhetoric tagging Turkey as a moderate Islamic state.

Professor MELIHA ALTUNISIK (Middle East Technical University): And I think if he can show that he understands the importance of what Turkey represents - not a moderate Muslim country, but a country with a Muslim population engaged in democratization for many years, accepting liberal economic principles, engaged with Western institutions and being secular at the same time. These characteristics are Turkey's contribution, I think, to world politics.

Mr. KENYON: What remains to be seen is how a stronger U.S.-Turkey relationship will fare in grappling with the thorny issues facing many of Turkey's neighbors. The Turks mediated indirect talks last year, for instance, between Syria and Israel, cut off when Israel began its air strikes on the Gaza Strip. Bahader Kotch(ph), at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, says on paper, the Syrian track holds more promise than the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. But with a new, right-wing Israeli government in Jerusalem headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Kotch says expectation should be modest.

Mr. BAHADER KOTCH (Center for Eastern Strategic Studies): I personally don't know whether Netanyahu government is sincere about reopening the Syrian track, or whether they will use it as a tactical step to say to the world don't force us, press us about Palestinians. We are already busy with the Syrians kind of thing. But I think Syrians still want Turkey to be involved because they trust Turkey. Turkey is an honest broker, or honest player.

Mr. KENYON: Turkey is also the only majority Muslim NATO member, a fact that came to the fore over the weekend as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan argued in vain against appointing the Danish prime minister as NATO's new secretary general. European members were unmoved by Turkey's argument that after the Danish cartoon controversy involving caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, NATO may not want a Danish leader when it increases its presence in Afghanistan or other Muslim countries.

President Obama's visit also comes at a time when many Turks are debating the country's foreign policy future. The ruling Justice and Development Party has increased Turkey's involvement in Middle East issues, alarming some in Turkey's secular block. Former ambassador to the U.S. Faruk Logoglu says it's natural that Turkey should feel neighborhood pressure from the Mideast, but he says President Obama has the opportunity to remind Turks that the West is also their neighborhood.

Mr. FARUK LOGOGLU (Former Turkish Ambassador to the United States of America): I put this on a broader scale. If President Obama wants to exert neighborhood pressure on a global scale - that is, you know, you belong to the West, this is where you live and reside as a member of the Euro-Atlantic community - I think it will have an impact on Turkey's internal dynamics as well.

Mr. KENYON: Turks will also be watching to see if Mr. Obama refers, as he did in the presidential campaign, to the World War I-era killings by Ottoman Turks as the Armenian genocide. It's a term accepted by many historians, but not by Turkey, and it could sour what looks to be a strengthening relationship.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Ankara.

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