Turkey is the first predominantly Muslim nation that President Obama has visited in his quest to improve the United States’ relationship with Muslims worldwide and the America-Turkey relationship is very complicated.
Turkey opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 and U.S. forces were not allowed to go through Turkey to attack Iraq. Turkey’s lawmakers voted not to let George W. Bush use Turkish soil to open an invasion front against Saddam Hussein, unraveling the alliance between our countries.
Now, however, since Obama is withdrawing troops, Turkey has become more cooperative. It is going to be a key country after the U.S. withdrawal in maintaining stability, although it has long had problems with Kurdish militants in north Iraq.
Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al-Qaida a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Turkey’s participation carries enormous symbolic importance to the Muslim world because of its presence in the fight against Islamic extremism. Albania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, has a small contingent in Afghanistan. Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the United States. It and tiny Albania, recently admitted, are the only predominantly Muslim members of NATO.
Turkey also has diplomatic leverage with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama is admired in Turkey. One Kurdish village sacrificed 44 sheep when he was elected, and a major bank used his image in a successful ad campaign on billboards and television in recent weeks. Still, many Turks remain suspicious about U.S. intentions.
Obama’s visit is being closely watched by an Islamic world that harbored deep distrust of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama recognized past tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but said things were on the right track now because both countries share common interests and are diverse nations. “We don’t consider ourselves Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We consider ourselves a nation bound by a set of ideals and values,” Obama said of the United States. “Turkey has similar principals.”
Obama’s trip to Turkey, his final scheduled country visit, ties together themes of his stops in the UK and Europe. He attended the Group of 20 economic summit in London, celebrated NATO’s 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and visited the Czech Republic, which included a summit of European Union leaders in Prague. Turkey is a member of both the G-20 and NATO and is trying to get into the EU with the help of the U.S.
One of President Barack Obama’s first stops on his visit to Turkey will be the imposing mausoleum of the national founder and independence war hero whose personality cult dominates the nation seven decades after his death.
It is a crime in Turkey to insult the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a visit to his tomb is a must for virtually all foreign leaders. Ataturk, a former army officer, forged a staunchly secular system in the chaotic wake of the Ottoman Empire, and the Islamic-oriented government in charge today has refrained from directly challenging his legacy.
If tradition holds in Ankara, the American president will lay a wreath Monday at the site of soaring stone columns, red, white and green marble, a gold mosaic ceiling and a huge sarcophagus. The tribute is vital to the alliance between Turkey and the United States which seeks help in its Iraq pullout and NATO’s troubled Afghan campaign.
A speech to parliament by Obama will restore good will, and reinforce the Western view that Turkey can serve as an example that Islam and democracy can flourish together, despite internal divisions and concerns about reform.
More broadly, the presidential trip will lift Turkey’s growing profile as a regional mediator, capable of reaching out to the Middle East and Central Asia as easily as it talks to the West about energy, security and the economy.
“The new U.S. administration wants to correct its perception in the Islamic world, and Obama is starting with the easiest one, Turkey,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.
Late Monday afternoon Obama will leave Ankara for Istanbul — a capital of past empires — where he will attend a reception of the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum sponsored by Turkey and Spain to promote understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
Tuesday’s program includes visits to the domed Haghia Sofia, which once was a Byzantine church, and the fabled Blue Mosque in tribute to great faiths whose interlocking history has known peace and bloodshed in Istanbul.
Unlike Bush and President Bill Clinton in the past, Obama will not visit Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Turkey harbors historical mistrust toward the patriarchate, whose officials have appealed for more religious freedom from their compound on the Golden Horn inlet in Istanbul.