Today's Zaman, Turkey
Feb 8 2009


The Obama Presidency: A View from Turkey


Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the United States of
America is a watershed event in the social and political history of
that country.


Basing his campaign on change and promising that `Yes, We Can,'
President Obama has been able to project a new vision and a new future
for the American people and the world. As the first black president,
Obama also has the chance to change the course of racial relations in
the US. Mr. Obama's pledge to open up new lines of communication with
the world has the potential to present a different notion of American
power and to repair the deeply polarizing nature of the current global
power structure. As the reckless policies and misadventures of the
Bush administration come to an end, Barack Obama's success should be
seen within the larger context of a global quest for new leadership in
the US and around the world. The Obama administration will carry not
only a political but a moral obligation to rally his country and the
world around the principles of peace, justice and equality.

President Obama is inheriting a long list of intractable problems. His
transition team has already dealt with several pressing issues
including the US financial crisis, before Obama has even been sworn
in. Once in office, effective January 20, 2009, how Barack Obama will
conceptualize his presidency and formulate his policies is a challenge
that will determine the nature of his term in office. As a young and
transformative leader, Obama has been able to capture the imagination
of millions of people around the world ` so much so that on his
victory day a group of villagers in the eastern Turkish city of Van
sacrificed forty-four sheep in his honor as the 44th president of the
United States! Very few leaders in modern history have enjoyed such a
warm reception and show of trust. The danger of setting the standard
so high is that President Obama may try to do things too hastily,
seeking to get quick results in order to meet the expectations.

The Obama presidency presents a unique opportunity not only for the
American people but also for the Middle East and the larger Muslim
world. The deep damage caused by the Bush administration's policies
following the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan will take a long time
to repair, and the Obama administration should fully know that it will
be facing numerous challenges in the most volatile region of the
world. So much mistrust has been built, and so many wounds have been
created, it will take enormous amounts of time, courage, patience and
political capital to mend and improve the relations between the United
States and the Muslim world. It is obvious that the US will have to do
more than just put out a new public relations campaign to win the
minds and hearts of the Muslim world. Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a
good step but should be only the first of many more substantial
policies. The Obama administration needs to plan extensive
modifications and introduce substantial changes to the way US foreign
policy is conducted around the world.

The `war on terror' as defined and executed by the Neo-conservative
cronies of the Bush administration has come to symbolize the
imperialistic designs of a group of American intellectuals,
strategists and politicians driven by power and greed. Since 2002, the
United States has invaded two Muslim countries, caused the deaths of
hundreds of thousands of people and the wounding of millions, arrested
thousands, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the
process. The human and political consequences of the failed Bush
policies are too obvious and numerous to be repeated here. It suffices
to remember, besides the deplorable situation and loss of life in
Afghanistan, the death of close to a million Iraqis and the
catastrophes of Abu Ghurayb and Guantanamo Bay. Bush's war on terror
has not eliminated the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism. To the contrary,
it has given al-Qaeda and its likes a carte blanche to play on the
grievances of Muslim societies and expand their recruitment grounds.

The war on terror has alienated the US from the rest of the world and
created suspicion, anger and resentment. The world that stood with the
American people on the horrific day of 9/11 has quickly distanced
itself from the policies of the Bush camp. As the Obama administration
prepares to take over, it has to do away with Bush's war on terror and
chart a new course in fighting terrorism in all of its forms and
manifestations. To have a clean break with the Bush legacy, a move the
whole world expects from the new administration, President Obama will
need to turn a new page in US foreign policy not in words but in
deeds. President Obama is bound to throw a large canvass of political
wisdom and global justice to reduce the costs of ill-advised
expansionist adventures and contain the follies of empire.

US-Turkish Relations: Developing a Regional Perspective

Despite periods of turbulence and uncertainty over the last sixty
years, US-Turkish relations have always maintained their strategic
significance. The main reason for this is the fact that the relations
between two countries go beyond bi-lateral relations and extend to key
regional issues in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and
Central Asia. Turkey has a unique geo-political position at the
interface of several continents and civilizational fault lines. As an
heir to the rich legacy of the Ottoman Empire and as a dynamic modern
Republic, Turkey occupies a special place between East and West,
Europe and the Middle East, the Muslim world and the West. From the
Caucasus to Middle East politics and energy security, US-Turkish
relations are essential for regional stability and the global balance
of power. The Obama presidency should build upon the good will and
strategic partnership between the two countries. A new beginning in US
foreign policy towards the Middle East and the larger region,
including the Caucasus, will mean Turkey's further involvement in key
regional issues. Charting a better course in US-Turkish relations
requires developing a regional perspective and deeper sense of
partnership.

US-Turkish relations are closely intertwined with developments in
several regions and the new US foreign policy towards those regions
will have a direct impact on relations between the two countries. A
US-Turkish partnership based on a shared regional vision and sense of
global politics involves the coordination of various policy elements,
from strengthening bilateral relations to dealing with pressing issues
in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. As
evidenced by the unilateralist and polarizing policies of the Bush
administration, it is impossible for the US to maintain good relations
with Turkey (or any other country for that matter) without agreeing on
some fundamental principles of policy and engaging the other countries
in the region. Turkey's security concerns regarding PKK terrorism, for
instance, cannot be addressed in isolation from other policy issues in
Turkey's immediate neighborhood. Given Turkey's energy dependence on
Iran and Russia, a belligerent policy of isolation and unilateralism
towards these two countries will not only raise tensions throughout
the region but also affect US-Turkish relations. A similar situation
exists concerning the future of post-American Iraq, Lebanon and the
Middle East peace process more broadly.

The key to a successful multilateral policy is to engage regional
actors without preconditions. Instead of forcing countries to fulfill
certain conditions before talking to them, one needs to include them
in the talks to deal with the issues comprehensively. Turkey's
increasing involvement in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Palestine
proves that talking without preconditions works, and that a carefully
crafted diplomacy can deliver ` a theme President Obama emphasized
during his campaign. Turkey insists on engaging Syria and Iran as well
as other non-state actors to establish stability in the region. As a
result of these efforts alone, Turkey has broken new ground in the
Syrian-Israeli talks. The significance of this accomplishment should
not be diminished by the fact that these talks have been suspended for
the time being because of Israel's brutal war on Gaza. By talking to
Iran, Turkey has avoided isolating Iran and dispensed with provocative
and polarizing policies in the region. Turkey has taken a similar
stance by choosing a middle path during and after the Russian-Georgian
war; this policy line helped contain the tensions between a defiant
Russia and a surprised and largely confused EU and US. In short, the
success of bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States
depends on formulating a shared regional vision and coordinating
efforts on key policy issues.

Fighting PKK Terrorism

For over two decades, one of the most contested issues between Ankara
and Washington has been the lack of cooperation in fighting PKK
terrorism. Rumors of secret or implicit US support for the PKK have
fueled anti-American sentiments in Turkey. Since the first Gulf War of
1991-1992, US policies in Iraq and the surrounding region have been
seen as failing to support Turkey in its struggle to stop PKK
terrorist activities. Given the fact that the European countries did
not have any better record, Turkish officials and the public have felt
that their security concerns have not been attended to by Turkey's
traditional allies. While the onus of finding a long-term solution to
the Kurdish problem remains on the shoulders of Turkey as a sovereign
country, international cooperation is a sine qua non for fighting PKK
terrorism which has increasingly become an international issue. As PKK
terrorists have found shelter in various parts of the world, much of
the anti-American and anti-European sentiment in Turkey has come about
as a result of the West's failure to address Turkey's security
concerns.

The meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister ErdoÄ?an
at the White House on October 5, 2007 marked an important turning
point in strengthening US-Turkish relations on the PKK issue. The
agreement between the two on instant intelligence sharing and further
cooperation and President Bush's declaration of the PKK as a terrorist
organization was hailed as a serious commitment and appreciated as
such by the Turkish public. While the extent and success of
intelligence sharing on PKK activities in Northern Iraq has been
debated, it did provide a new boost for US-Turkish relations which had
turned sour in March 2003, when the Turkish Parliament rejected a
motion to allow US troops to use Turkish soil for the invasion of
Iraq.

Today, in spite of this boost, Turkey is fighting a revitalized
PKK. The steps taken to address the root causes of PKK terrorism have
been very slow in coming and insufficient in execution. Yet even now,
there are new opportunities to find a lasting solution to the Kurdish
issue through a national consensus in Turkey. The launching of TRT 6
broadcasting in the Kurdish language is a step in the right
direction. Yet neither the AK Party government nor other Turkish
actors, including the military and civilian forces, can afford to take
bold steps when large-scale fighting continues and security concerns
take precedence over democratic rights and economic development. Given
the long record of this issue in the US Congress and the White House,
the Obama administration will be in a position to appreciate its
urgency for Turkey. President Obama and his team need to give priority
to combating PKK terrorism as a critical component of US-Turkish
relations. To that effect, the new administration should urge Iraq's
Kurdish leaders to help Turkey root out PKK installments in Northern
Iraq and prevent the PKK from poisoning relations between Ankara and
Arbil on the one hand, and Ankara and Washington on the other.

The Armenian Issue and Relations between Turkey and Armenia

US-Turkish relations are too important to be reduced to the Armenian
genocide claims. Moreover, a contested issue of history cannot be
resolved under pressure from lobbying groups and diaspora
communities. The virulently anti-Turkish attitude of Armenian lobby
groups in the US and in Europe has not brought Turks and Armenians
closer to one another. While the Armenian lobby acts with a sense of
fiat accompli and refuses any reconciliatory measures, Turkey has made
several goodwill gestures to start a process of talks, proposing to
form a committee of historians to look into the events of
1915-16. While a historical reconciliation needs to be sought, keeping
in mind the terrible loss of life on both sides in the First World
War, the first glimpses of a new page in relations between Turkey and
Armenia should be fully supported.

Turks and Armenians share a long history of peaceful co-existence and
creative partnership, from music and architecture to politics and
diplomacy. Today, geo-political realities and regional imperatives
rather than misplaced emotions and oppositional identities should be
the guiding principles of Turkish-Armenian relations. The process
which started with the visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gül
to Yerevan in September 2008, the first of its kind, presents a unique
opportunity to change the current deadlock from contested history to
shared future. So far, the trilateral talks between Turkey, Azerbaijan
and Armenia have made considerable progress in easing tensions between
these three neighboring countries. Any attempt to bring the Armenian
genocide issue back to the center of the political process will surely
poison relations between Turkey and the new Obama administration and
thwart the process of reconciliation between Ankara and Yerevan. From
a geo-political point of view, it is in the interest of all parties to
help improve relations between Turkey and Armenia and prevent the
narrow agenda of genocide claims from dominating the political
landscape. Priority should be given to Ankara and Yerevan to sort out
the issues between the two countries.

Diversifying US-Turkish Relations

Despite their strategic significance, US-Turkish relations suffer from
the absence of diversification. US interests in the region usually
determine the shape and extent of relations, leaving little room for
other areas to claim any prominence. A century of predominantly good
relations between the two countries has not led to major cooperation
and partnership in such areas as trade, education and culture. In his
last visit to Washington for the G-20 meeting in November 2008,
Turkish Prime Minister ErdoÄ?an complained about the small
volume of US-Turkish trade and made a call to expand it. While there
are many Turkish students studying at American institutions of higher
education, the current level of cooperation does not reflect the
countries' true partnership potential. Despite calls by numerous
American officials and private citizens who follow Turkey closely, a
similar state of affairs exists in the field of cultural
exchange. Diversifying US-Turkish relations and generating enough
social capital in areas other than foreign policy are crucial steps
needed to maintain a sustainable relationship at times of crisis.

Energy Cooperation

A rather underdeveloped area of partnership in Eurasia at large is the
energy sector. Turkey is an energy-dependent country, but it straddles
world energy corridors from Central Asia and the Middle East to
Europe. There are already important energy routes that go through
Turkey, and more routes are expected to be constructed. For instance,
NABUCCO is expected to go over Turkish land, bringing gas from the
Caspian basin and Central Asia to points west. Once completed, it will
be the largest energy pipeline of the world, and will increase energy
supply security, both for the EU countries and for Turkey. NABUCCO
will strengthen Turkey's strategic position as well.

Iranian gas is another potential area for international
collaboration. After Russia, Iran has the largest natural gas reserves
in the world. Possession of such reserves is probably the most
valuable leverage Iran could use to affect a rapprochement with the
West in general, and with the EU countries in particular.

The Obama administration is expected to pursue a more active Eurasian
energy policy. The new administration is expected to collaborate more
enthusiastically with friendly countries in the region to help them
become more energy independent, while encouraging diversification. The
Turkish idea of transporting Turkmen and Iraqi gas to Europe via
Turkey was supported by the Bush administration; this position is
expected to be maintained by the Obama administration. The proposed
transportation plan would further Turkey's goal of becoming an energy
hub for transporting rich energy reserves from neighboring regions to
world markets.

The Cyprus Peace Process

The Obama administration should support the talks currently underway
between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. One should not anticipate a
partial and one-sided US approach because of Joe Biden's past record
on the issue. As Vice President, Biden is likely to adopt a realist
policy of maintaining good relations with both Turkey and Greece. The
new administration should note that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots
fully supported the Annan Plan in 2004 to create a united island in
Cyprus. The US should support efforts to end the isolation of Turkish
Cypriots as a constructive step towards reconciliation between the two
nations on the island.

A Post-American Iraq and Turkey

Before and during his election campaign, President Obama opposed the
war in Iraq and pledged to withdraw US troops within the first sixteen
months of his presidency. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed
between Iraq and the US before the end of 2008 assumes the withdrawal
of US forces from Iraq by 2011. While committing oneself to a tight
time-table involves certain risks, US withdrawal is an eventual
necessity in order to let Iraqis rule themselves and rebuild their
country with the help of the international community. While the
details of Obama's withdrawal plan are yet to be worked out, it will
need to have three main pillars. The first is to prepare Iraqi
military and policy forces to take over the security situation in
Iraq. The necessary training of these forces and the improvement of
their condition will be provided in collaboration with NATO. Although
US calls for further NATO involvement did not receive a warm response
from the European allies, Obama is confident that NATO and the
international community will extend their support once the US plan for
withdrawal is put in motion.

The second pillar of the American exit strategy will be to strengthen
the central government in Baghdad and create a functioning political
and economic system to prevent internal fighting and chaos in the
post-US phase. It is necessary to set up a political framework for the
central government that will represent all segments of Iraqi society,
prepare the regional governments of Iraq to take care of the security
situation, and improve state efficiency in social services in order to
normalize Iraqi lives. This process must also include measures to
accommodate differences among the diverse ethnic, religious and
sectarian groups that make up Iraqi society.

The third pillar is to seek support from neighboring countries and the
international community to establish the stability and security of
Iraq after the US withdrawal. In tandem with the indication that Obama
will put an end to US unilateral policies, he should bring all
countries in the region on board in dealing with Iraq's pressing
problems, from security to the economy. Since its launching, Turkey's
Iraqi Neighboring Countries Initiative has provided a valuable
platform for regional cooperation and should be supported and
strengthened to help post-American Iraq. An important component of
this process is to ensure that the US troops that will remain in Iraq,
whose extent is not known, will not pose threats to Iraq's neighbors
including Iran and Turkey. A large American military presence in
Northern Iraq, for instance, will be a source of concern and tension
for Turkey.

Afghanistan: Avoiding the Graveyard of Empires

The Obama campaign favored the idea of increasing the number of
soldiers in Afghanistan and seeking more support from NATO and its
allies to deal with the situation in that country. Obama is likely to
increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan. NATO-ISAF forces will
receive more support and Obama will lobby in the capitals of Europe
for active involvement to stabilize Afghanistan. Turkey has already
some troops in Afghanistan, helping the local communities to cope with
the difficulties of occupation, warlords and a weak
government. Prioritizing Afghanistan is a step in the right
direction. But the new Obama administration needs to start a new
process of national reconciliation to bring together all parties,
including the Taliban. Those elements of the Taliban and other
fighting groups that are willing to be part of the political process
should be allowed to do so. In a traditional society like Afghanistan
where the mere presence of foreign troops is a major source of social
unrest and mistrust, a comprehensive agenda of rebuilding Afghanistan
with all Afghani groups involved must be set in place. Turkey's good
credentials with the Afghan people can be a valuable asset in this
process. In addition, the Obama administration will need the close
cooperation of Pakistan and Iran to establish order in Afghanistan and
formulate a reasonable exit strategy.

Going Beyond the Nuclear Issue in Iran

President Obama made it clear than the idea of Iran having nuclear
weaponry is unacceptable. Together with other countries in the region,
Turkey shares the same point of view, but supports Iran in developing
nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. During his campaign, Mr. Obama
talked about the possibility of direct and unconditional dialogue with
Tehran. This is an important possibility and should be given a chance
in order to counteract the sense of isolation and insecurity which the
Iranians have been experiencing for a number of years. The current
state of Turkish-Iranian relations is a valuable capital that could be
used to steer Iran away from pursuing nuclear weapons, and to
contribute to peace and stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and
Palestine. Just before coming to the G-20 meeting, Turkish PM Erdogan
stated that Turkey is willing to facilitate talks between Tehran and
Washington. Turkey would not make such a proposal unless it had
received a green light from Iran. This opportunity should be seized in
good faith and a process of direct and indirect talks should
begin. Given Turkey's long-standing experience with Iran as a
neighboring country, the Obama White House should give more room to
Turkey to address Iranian concerns. Now that Turkey has started its
tenure in the UN Security Council, it is all the more pertinent to
handle the Iranian nuclear dossier with an inclusive and constructive
approach.

Pakistan

Pakistan occupied the center of Obama's campaign as an outstanding
foreign policy issue. Obama considers Pakistan a source of
international terror and blames Pakistani groups for spoiling the US
operations in Afghanistan. Obama considers the situation in Pakistan
dangerous for regional and international politics. Pakistan has a
fragile and polarized political system, and the internal situation
could easily turn to an intra-societal conflict; this fragility poses
serious threats to regional stability due to rogue elements in the
uncontrollable zones on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This
situation also poses a serious threat to international security due to
concerns over the Pakistani administration's ability to control
Pakistani nukes. The deplorable Mumbai killings on November 26 have
made the situation much more explosive and dangerous. Given Turkey's
good relations and historical ties with Pakistan, a comprehensive
policy agenda can be developed by including Turkey in the process in
order to ease tensions between Pakistan and India on the one hand, and
Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other. The second round of trilateral
talks between Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Afghan President
Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari took place in
Turkey on December 6th 2008. Increased Turkish involvement in
Pakistani-Afghani relations has been welcomed by all sides, and by the
US administration. Mr. Obama can and should benefit from Turkey's good
relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Dealing with a Resurgent Russia in the 21st Century

While the full extent and details of Obama's future policy towards
Russia have not yet been made public, Obama has criticized the
so-called realist policy towards Russia. Instead, he said during his
campaign, he would follow a value-based policy. It is clear from the
Russian-Georgian war of last year that Russia will remain largely
defiant in the face of what it perceives as a Western policy of
encirclement. Russia is a significant player in Turkey's immediate
neighborhood; it is also one of Turkey's top trading partners. The
regional perspective discussed above can provide a framework of trust,
partnership and effective diplomacy not only for Turkish-Russian
relations but also for relations between Russia and the US. In the
wake of the Georgia-Russia crisis, Turkey proposed a Caucasian
Stability Platform to start a dialogue between three Caucasian states,
Russia, and Turkey to prevent future crises in the region. So far,
Turkey's efforts have been helpful in containing a larger conflict in
the Caucasus. Turkey's good relations with Russia and other countries
in the region should be seen as an asset by the new US administration.

The Middle East Peace Process

The Obama administration is likely to recognize that all of the
problems in the Middle East are interconnected. The Arab-Israeli peace
process cannot progress without taking into consideration the
isolation of Iran and the fragile dynamics in Iraq. The art of
diplomacy is to bring together all parties concerned in an effort to
identify common interests and challenges. This is why, under the Obama
administration, the Middle East peace process will need a jump start
with an international conference, similar to the Madrid Summit of
1991. A major mistake in Madrid was the exclusion of Iran. This time,
this new international summit should embrace all major actors in the
region, including Iran and Turkey, in addition to the Middle East
Quartet comprised of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations
and the United States.

Istanbul provides the best venue for such a summit. Turkish diplomacy
has already made substantial inroads in terms of mediating between
Israel and Syria. The Turkish government has also expressed
willingness to mediate between Iran and the United States. Just as the
1990s were characterized by the `Oslo Peace Process,' the next era of
diplomacy and cooperation in the Middle East can be launched with a
summit in Istanbul under the name of the `Istanbul Peace Process.'
Such an effort would not only amount to a paradigmatic change in
Turkish-American relations ` bringing much needed credibility to the
strategic partnership ` but it would also demonstrate the Obama
administration's willingness to adopt a genuinely multilateral
platform for peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Obama has indicated that he will give priority to the Middle East
peace process. It is clear that there will be no lasting peace between
the US and the Muslim world unless the Palestinian issue is
resolved. While this is the right approach, it carries certain risks
at the level of domestic American politics. The Israeli lobby will
continue to approach the peace process from a narrow and distorted
point view, divide the Palestinians, and present Arabs as unwilling or
unable to make peace with Israel. Obama's appointment of pro-Israeli
figures to his team has raised questions about the even-handedness of
his approach towards the Palestinian issue. Mr. Obama should give a
new start to the Middle East Peace process and avoid President Bush's
deadly mistakes. The Obama presidency should take the Arab Peace
Initiative seriously and start a process of integrating Hamas into its
negotiations. Unless Hamas is made part of the solution, there will be
no solution in Palestine. As a country close to the region, Turkey has
recognized this fact and developed good relations with all parties in
Palestine. The key points of the Palestinian conflict which include
the 1967 borders, the Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem
should be addressed in a regional framework, and the Arab countries as
well as Iran and Turkey should be invited to be part of the
process. The Obama administration should also support the process of
integrating Syria into the regional political process. Turkey's
efforts in this regard have been considerable and should be supported
by the US and the Europeans.

Mr. Obama's silence over the Israeli war on Gaza has shaken people's
hopes in his ability and willingness to bring a fresh point of view to
the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Israel's suicidal war on Gaza has
taken more than 1,300 lives, most of them civilians, women and
children, and wounded over 5,000 Palestinians. Currently, Israel is
undermining all possibilities for a just and lasting solution to the
Palestinian issue. By defying the UN, neighboring countries and the
rest of the international community, Israel has proven itself
unwilling to make peace with anyone in the region. While this attitude
will certainly further isolate Israel, it will also jeopardize the
safety and welfare of Israeli citizens in the long run. President
Obama must follow an even-handed policy towards the Palestinian
conflict with a sense of justice and determination. Decades of neglect
and unjustified pro-Israeli policies have worsened the situation on
the ground and poisoned US-Muslim world relations. The Obama
presidency should provide a new framework for the Palestinian issue
and support the two-state solution on the principles of justice and
equality.



SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, Policy
Brief, January 2009, No.29

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23 January 2009, Friday

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