Obama's Visit Benefits U.S., Turkey

President Obama's trip to Turkey has been an important one for relations between the two countries. Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group tells Ari Shapiro that Obama's charm offensive already has laid the groundwork for Turkey helping the U.S. diplomatically in the region. The visit may also assist Turkey's ambitions to join the European Union.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This visit to Turkey was President Obama's first visit to a Muslim country since he took office. And for a closer look at the significance of that trip, we've called Hugh Pope. He's a former Wall Street Journal reporter who covered Turkey for many years. And Pope is now with the International Crisis Group. He joined us from Istanbul.

When you look at a map of the entire Muslim world, from Indonesia to the Middle East, to Turkey, what is the significance of President Obama choosing this country as the first Muslim country he's visited as president?

Mr. HUGH POPE (International Crisis Group): I think it's a very important signal, firstly to Turkey, and I think it's also part of a quite sophisticated strategy towards the Muslim world, which, after all, isn't really a unit, as sometimes people think. Most Muslims don't live in the Middle East, and those who do are part of three or four quite different religious cultures.

So the first message was to the Arabs through Al-Arabiya satellite channel, and the second one, the outreach to Iran and now his first visit to the - probably the most secular, the most democratic and certainly economically, the most strong Muslim state is Turkey, and also a NATO ally. And I think that he's giving them a diverse series of messages, which I think is the right way to approach the Muslim world, in a differentiated and respectful way.

SHAPIRO: This has been framed as an effort on the president's part to build bridges, to mend fences with the Muslim world. Do you think that he succeeded on that point?

Mr. POPE: Absolutely. And I think that he's - his job is made easy by how very different his approach has been from the previous U.S. government, which, for instance, in the run-up to the Iraq war, more or less ignored Turkey and took it for granted and was then rather shocked when Turkey didn't go along with its plan.

SHAPIRO: And so what specific policy changes do you think might come out of this new tone and this spirit of reconciliation?

Mr. POPE: Well, already, Turkey has signaled that it's ready to allow U.S. troops to leave Iraq through Turkey without any problem. I think that the United States can expect strong support in terms of Afghanistan. We don't know the details yet, but Turkey's already played quite a strong role there, and I think more general support in the Middle East. Turkey is one of the few countries that talks to everybody in the Middle East, from Tel Aviv to Teheran, from Khartoum to Damascus. And they talk to Hamas, they talk to Riyadh, inside Arabia.

So although Turkey's not the main decision maker in the Middle East, it's a very good help in spreading messages and in passing messages back to Washington.

SHAPIRO: Shifting to economic issues, is there a role Turkey can play in strengthening commercial ties between the U.S. in that part of the world?

Mr. POPE: Istanbul has emerged in the last 10 years as one of the big commercial centers of the region, and several U.S. companies do use Turkey as a base for their interaction with the Middle East. For instance, Microsoft has a big center here, as do several companies like Kodak and so forth. And so, in that sense, Istanbul, as a regional (unintelligible) is already projecting U.S. commercial links with this region, and I think the fact that Turkey is one of the most accessible and robust economies of the region is the reason why American companies would choose bases in Turkey and also because it is very easy for Middle Easterners to get to Istanbul without visas - so simple technical things like that, where Turkey is going to be of help.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. would like to see Turkey admitted to the European Union, and that's a position that is not quite as popular in some of the EU member countries. Do you think this visit has changed the dynamics there?

Mr. POPE: Absolutely. I think it is one of the most important things that President Obama has managed to do, is that he's set an example to the European Union, which in the last five years - especially the presidents of France and the Chancellor Merkel of Germany - have been quite cold towards Turkey, and that's been very demotivating towards Turkey's negotiations to join the EU. And I think that President Obama has shown that by engaging with Turkey, a lot more can be achieved.

It's been difficult in recent times because the European Union has been so introverted, it has been so worried the economic crisis. There's been very little appetite for enlargement. And I think if only the European Union leaders would do more of what President Obama has been doing, I think that it would make Turkey a sunnier place, and that would warm the region around it as well.

SHAPIRO: We've been speaking with Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group. He joined us from Istanbul. Thanks very much.

Mr. POPE: Thank you.

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