Obama Tiptoes Turkey's Religious-Secular Line

U.S. and Turkish presidents with honor guard i

Turkish President Abdullah Gul looks on as President Obama greets an honor guard in Istanbul on Monday. The trip was Obama's first official visit to a majority Muslim nation. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
U.S. and Turkish presidents with honor guard

Turkish President Abdullah Gul looks on as President Obama greets an honor guard in Istanbul on Monday. The trip was Obama's first official visit to a majority Muslim nation.

Getty Images

President Obama's visit to Turkey was a balancing act that stretched — like Turkey itself — between Europe and the Islamic world.

Much has been made of the fact that this was Obama's first visit as president to a majority Muslim country. Before departing on Tuesday, he held talks with religious leaders and visited Istanbul's Blue Mosque, one of Turkey's most famous landmarks.

Foreign policy analysts point to the substantial amount of work to be done to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

In a speech Monday before Turkey's parliament, Obama stressed Turkey's ties to the West and its importance to the U.S. as a military and diplomatic power. He made a point of saying that the U.S. "is not and never will be at war with Islam."

Limits To Obama's Reach

But analysts say there are limits to the substantive outreach Obama made in Turkey to the wider Islamic world.

Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, says that's because Turkey itself is torn over the fact that it is a majority Muslim country, but with a predominately secular government.

"There are many devoutly religious Turks who would be delighted to see Obama give a speech to the Islamic world [from Turkey], but many Turks are secular. They would not be pleased if Obama saw Turkey as the center of the Islamic world," he said.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says much of the president's visit was devoted to mending relations with Turkey that were damaged after the Turkish government opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The Bush administration was also irritated by Turkey's relations with Iran and Syria.

"The Turks have come into their own in Middle East diplomacy," says Cook, "in part because the U.S. wasn't there."

He notes that Turkey's attitude at the time was that it wanted stable relations with all its neighbors, especially Iran, which is Turkey's second-largest source for natural gas, after Russia. "Right now, the U.S. and Turkey are on the same page [on Iran policy], but if our policy becomes more robust, such as seeking more sanctions, I'm not sure the Turks will be on board," Cook says.

Analysts say Turkey would like to play a role as mediator in negotiations between the U.S. and Iran or as an intermediary should the U.S. ever negotiate with the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

But Cook warns that the U.S. may not welcome a too-active Turkish engagement in the Middle East. "Now that we're back," he says, "we may want the Turks to know their limits."

Cook notes that the Turks have been touting their part in trying to resolve the most recent Gaza crisis. "The Turks will tell you how constructive they were, but the Egyptians will complain that the Turks nearly undid all their work."

Turkey's Role In Iraq

Turkey has been playing a more positive role in Iraq, since Turkey wants to see the U.S. able to make an orderly withdrawal from the country, Cook says. Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, recently made a trip to Baghdad, in which he promised to help with Iraq's normalization.

The Turkish military still stages frequent cross-border strikes into northern Iraq against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, but Cook notes that Turkey has improved relations with the Kurdish regional government, and that Turkish businesses are heavily invested in Iraq's Kurdish provinces.

Obama drew strong applause in the Turkish parliament when he underlined U.S. support for Turkey's battle against the PKK, which both nations consider to be a terrorist group.

The president celebrated what he called "Turkey's strong and secular democracy." He stressed Turkey's relationship to Europe, and called for Turkey's accession to membership in the European Union, something that Turkey has long sought, but which is strongly opposed by the leaders of France and Germany.

Obama Unchanged On Armenian Genocide

Both analysts say Obama was careful to navigate one of the thorniest issues in U.S.-Turkish relations — the question of whether the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in 1916 constituted genocide. Armenian-Americans have long called on Congress to pass a resolution asking Turkey to acknowledge that killings were genocidal, and as a senator, Obama said he supported that.

At a news conference in Ankara, Obama, without mentioning the word "genocide," said his views have not changed. But he noted that Turkey and Armenia are in negotiations aimed at establishing diplomatic relations, and said he wasn't interested in "tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having useful discussions."

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