April 30 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama gathered yet another unprecedented summit
in Washington, D.C., this past week, following the International
Nuclear Security Summit held a couple of weeks ago. More than 300
delegates from 56 Muslim countries participated in the Presidential
Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Turkey sent several exciting delegates, most of whom I was able to
have long conversations with on the sidelines of the summit.

Obama convened this summit, in which the participants were mostly
small-business owners, innovators and businessmen, to further forge
ties with Muslim countries. He made sure his intentions would be well
understood by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his treasury
and education secretaries and many other high-level officials to the
summit to give talks and mingle with the guests. Some other White
House officials also made themselves ready for open-ended interviews
to talk about the importance of the summit, which is a rare occurrence
at any rate.

The biggest surprise of the summit for us was that Turkey was selected
to organize the second summit in 2011.

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council,
said in an e-mail message that as "President [Obama] outlined in
his Cairo speech nearly a year ago, the United States is keen to
deepen our engagement with Muslim communities around the world and
also develop new partnerships based on mutual respect and mutual
interests... entrepreneurship can unlock tremendous potential, promote
education, foster innovation and create jobs. We deeply appreciate
Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's leadership on this issue;
it is yet another tangible example of the depth and breadth of the
U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership."

Another White House official told me last week during the summit that
it was confirmed only one day before the event started that Turkey
would host the second one. It is noteworthy that this confirmation
came right after April 24, when Obama released his statement on the
Armenian day of remembrance.

Though Muslim countries sent delegations to Washington, the gap
between the two has not shrunk. There are a number of obstacles that
keep stirring up anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries. For
example, the never-ending attacks by Afghanistan-based U.S. forces,
which have repeatedly caused the killing of innocent people, are one of
the biggest factors injecting more strain. Raising tension with Iran
also sends mixed signals to the Muslim world as the situation appears
to be that the U.S. wants to take on another Muslim country, after
Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever the reason. And finally, in addition
to many other issues, the lack of progress on the Palestine-Israel
peace process continues to weaken Obama's standing in the Muslim world.

There are Middle East experts in Washington who have already announced
the death of the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict,
a big source of anti-American sentiments in the region. One of those
experts is Dr. Reza Aslan, the author of "Beyond Fundamentalism,"
who visited the region very recently and gave a talk at the Rumi Forum
last week. According to Aslan, the two-state solution is already dead
and buried because neither party is ready and willing to reach that
solution. The Palestinian leadership, Aslan argued, lost the trust
of Palestinian people with its ineptitude and corruption.

The ideological settlers group has a bigger sway in the current Israeli
government; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself considers
Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state and does not shrink from
building in any part of the city, which fuels Palestinians' anger.

Therefore, even though inviting representatives from more than 50
Muslim countries to Washington seemed like a wonderful idea to show
Obama is committed and has taken another step toward the Muslim world,
it falls flat in comparison to the colossal issues just discussed.


Dozens of analyses and opinion pieces on the Iranian conundrum appear
every day; for the approximately half-dozen experts I talked to this
week, the confusion and speculation over the issue is visible.

Svante Cornell, the research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus
Institute Silk Road Studies Program, said Turkey has had a two-fold
foreign-affairs policy outlook for some years now. While trying to
warm its relationships with countries that are condemned by the West
one way or another, such as Iran, Syria and Sudan, Turkey also strives
to maintain good relations with the West.

Cornell calls this policy a "balancing game" and claims Turkey wants
to walk this thin line without damaging its relations with either side.

The worst scenario for the Turkish balancing game, Cornell predicted,
would be a military confrontation in the region. The second-worst
scenario would be a clash over sanctions at the United Nations Security
Council, which is expected this spring.

In recent weeks and days, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along
with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has also been intensely pushing
for strong sanctions against Iran. Sarkozy made his first visit to
China this past week since the relations between France and China
went sour following a previous episode over Tibet. However, the
president of China did not comment publicly on the sanctions issue
after the meetings.

Cornell says it appears as if the Obama administration just wants to
pass "a package" but does not care much what will be in it. That's
why the Obama administration is watering down the package and getting
ready to live with a nuclear Iran.

Turkey has made clear its views on the sanctions package. In a speech
a couple of weeks ago in Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu reminded first about the past sanctions experience with Iraq,
and how Turkey lost economically during this time. Davutoglu seemed
unwavering about another sanctions package this time. Turkey plainly
lauds its disbelief on the utility of the sanctions by repeating a
"sanctions don't work" slogan.

Today's Turkish administration, which has been promoting proactive
and friendly policies in its region close to a decade now, views
applying sanctions on Iran as being against its economic interests
and friendlier Middle East policies.

On the other side, the Obama administration will likely not seek
retribution against Turkey for such opposition at the U.N. Security
Council, according to another Washington-based Iranian-American
security analyst.

For President Obama, who has many hurdles to tackle before mending
ties with the Muslim and Arab world, Turkey occupies a significant
post; it is a country that cannot be overlooked or risk being lost,
even if it ends up opposing sanctions.