OBAMA'S PRESIDENCY AND ITS MEANING FOR TURKEY
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Today's Zaman
Nov 14 2008
Turkey

It would not be an overstatement to argue that not only the US but
also the rest of the world embraced President-elect Barack Obama's
message of hope and change.

Apparently, it was not only the 300 million Americans at home who
suffered to a great extent from eight years of Bush and neocon
policies as the world welcomed the victory of the skinny black man
with great joy.

Among countless celebrations in different parts of the world, the one
in Van, a relatively remote Eastern province in Turkey, was a perfect
indicator of the meaning of Obama's election as the first black (or
better, African-American, in accordance with American brand political
correctness) president of the United States. Following Obama's victory,
the people of Van sacrificed 44 sheep for the 44th president of the
US. Given the fact that Turks have not done such a gesture for an
American politician since Clinton won the hearts of people in the
aftermath of the 1999 earthquake, how could we explain such a huge
welcome for a politician whose policies have not yet been tested?

The response seems to be clear: Just the election alone of a black
man -- read: "member of an underrepresented, discriminated and
less-privileged group" -- into the single most important office in
the world meant that the sociologically black everywhere finally felt
victorious. Sure, Obama's election is a huge psychological threshold
for African-Americans and other minorities in America, but just his
identity constitutes a paradigm shift for those who feel "black"
all around the world.

Aside from such a historic change coupled with his rhetoric
along the same lines, should we expect much change from the Obama
administration? I do not think so. Despite his unconventionally
diverse background for an American president, Obama has not followed
a completely different path from his predecessors. As an alumnus of
Ivy League schools Columbia and Harvard, he gained a similar world
outlook as a "WASP" (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Not do only his
education and training make Obama of the same kind, but he also started
building his political career at a local level in accordance with the
"rules of the game." After all, as political scientist Louis Hartz
argues, Americans seeks the "same estate" and make a choice among
liberals only.

Although Obama's background and his early exposure to the rest of
the world might give him a better understanding of the "other,"
his first choice for senior staff hints that not much will change
in the course of US policies. In all fairness to him, though, we
should note the importance of his promise to close Guantanamo, which
has been in dire contradiction with the liberal values that America
claims to celebrate. Presidential history presents examples of the
impact of personalities on policies, but in such an institutionalized
country that has stakes throughout the world, there is an unwritten
limit to the degree of changes you can make, particularly in foreign
policy. Even in the pre-election declarations on foreign policy,
for instance, as far as relations with Israel are concerned, Obama
vowed to prioritize the security of Israel. Yet, he also signaled for
"more diplomacy" with Iran. Apparently Iran considers Obama less
of an evil considering the congratulatory message from Tehran. It
would not be unreasonable to expect the end of unilateralism and
"pre-emptive strikes" on the part of the US, which is by itself a
positive development for the rest of the world.

Although Obama declared the main tenets of his policies prior to
election -- such as his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq -- we
are not in a position to make intelligent estimates on the possible
consequences of such a step and other critical issues.

As far as Turkish-American relations are concerned, there is no doubt
that at least a different mood will mark the new era. Notwithstanding
the constants of American foreign policy, we might expect the new
administration to be at least more open to dialogue. It is public
knowledge that mutual mistrust and frustration determined the tone of
US-Turkish relations in the post-March 1, 2003, era despite periodic
efforts to mend fences. From the end of the Cold War until that
date, there was already a need for a redefinition of relations as the
assumptions of the Cold War era coupled with the complacency that they
brought about disappeared. The relations were no longer on "automatic
pilot," but in the lost years of the 1990s, Turkey was overly occupied
with domestic tensions in the absence of a stable government let alone
a visionary leader to draw up a new framework for US-Turkish relations.

With the adoption of a proactive foreign policy in the 2000s, Turkey
began to seek a leadership role in the region while trying to reduce
problems with its neighbors. In addition to emphasizing the already
well-known yet unique features of its identity (being the only secular
Muslim country in such a strategic and troubled region of the world),
Turkey wanted to assume the role of an arbiter in the most contentious
matters in the Middle East. Considering the never-ending domestic
tensions and the struggle to constitute the primacy of civilian
politics at home, Turkey might not have had an upper hand. Yet,
despite its domestic chains, Turkey has not quit its efforts to be a
more active player in the region. In a way, these efforts paid off
when Turkey was elected a temporary member to the United Nations
Security Council.

It seems that an American administration that would avoid military
means as much as possible and prefers diplomacy and dialogue over
pre-emption would be much easier to cooperate with for Turkey. Although
Turkish society was overly focused on Obama's stance on the Armenian
question, when looked at a macro level, a proactive Turkey that
targets zero problems with its neighbors is likely to have a broader
overlap of interests with the Obama administration than with the
neocons. Having said that, I do not suggest ignoring the Armenian
issue. Yet, we have to acknowledge that this issue has almost a
public relations dimension. Unfortunately, because of decades of
poor lobbying, we seem to be losing the hearts and minds of the
international community in that respect. Rather than seeking the
support of the US president regardless of his convictions, we have
to have a long-term strategy of changing the public opinion in the
first place. In such a framework, it is clear that Turkey's move to
ameliorate the relations with Armenia was a constructive step that
will give us leverage in such a touchy subject.

For America, at a time of global economic crisis and among its
immediate headaches such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and others,
relations with Turkey surely will not be a top item in the list
of Obama administration. Yet, given our direct and/or indirect
inevitable role in almost every issue in the region, Obama will have
to learn more about Turkey. The intricacies of Turkish politics will
probably confuse him at first like any other beginner, but hopefully
with reasonable and fair advisers, it will not take long for this
promising administration to realize Turkey's role in the region.

As Obama said in his campaign, "change we need." Not only in the
United States, but also in the way they communicate with the rest of
the world.