During the presidential elections, “Yes, we can” was the motto of Barack Obama’s campaign. Now, I hope that it will also be the motto of a Middle Eastern peace process. Obama came to Turkey on April 5, and this visit can be seen as an important step for providing peace in the Middle East because Turkey plays a key role as a balancing and mediating power in the region. I believe that a new era of Middle Eastern peace will start with cooperation between the United States and Turkey. Let’s look at the situation in the region by focusing on the relations between the U.S. and Turkey.
Before Obama was elected president, public sentiment in Turkey had grown unfavorable of the U.S. According to surveys mentioned in Stephen Walt’s Taming American Power, the “favorable” image of the U.S. in Turkey declined from 52 percent to 30 percent during the Bush administration. There were three main reasons behind this tension. First, although Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, supported the code that allows U.S. troops to use Turkey’s landscape and military bases for invading Iraq, the majority of the Turkish Parliament prevented the legislation by voting against it in 2003. Second, on the July 4, 2003, U.S. soldiers arrested and humiliated eleven members of Turkish Special Forces in northern Iraq although these forces had been cooperating with U.S. troops during the invasion. I think that this unfortunate event, sometimes referred to as the Hood Event, caused anti-Americanism among many Turks, as this involved a clear indignity for the majority of the Turks. Finally, the U.S. criticized Turkey for increasing diplomatic and economic relations with Iran and Syria. From the perspective of the Bush administration, this indicated that Turkey was starting to turn its back on the West and was choosing instead to become a closer ally of Iran and Syria. From the perspective of the Turkish government, Turkey were making some economic alignments with these countries in order to pursue its own national interest.
However, I fell that relations between the U.S. and Turkey have improved since Obama’s election. The appointment of Hillary Clinton as the new secretary of state was the first sign of an amelioration of these relations. Additionally, Obama’s visit to Turkey following the G-20 meetings has to be considered a second and strong indicator of this positive acceleration. I think that Obama’s decision to choose Turkey as the first country to visit after G-20 indicates that he and his advisors appreciate Turkey’s key role as a peace-broker, and want there to be peace in the Middle East. I believe that, as the first step of providing peace, there will be a détente between Iran and the U.S. I see Obama’s March 20 video message to Iran celebrating Nowruz, the traditional Iranian new year holiday, as the first sign of this détente. Obama’s visit to Turkey now subsequently becomes more meaningful in this context of détente because Turkey has to be seen as a willing and able facilitator in the Middle Eastern peace process.
Turkey is incredibly important as it is the only secular, modern, and economically developed country with a 99 percent Muslim population. Famed Washington Post journalist David Ignatius, who was also the moderator of the World Economic Forum panel in Davos earlier this year, gave a speech at the Columbia School of Journalism on March 31 about “literature and terrorism,” and his book, Body of Lies. During the course of this event, he identified Turkey as a “modern Islamic country,” claiming, “Turkey is modern due its founding principles, but it is also an Islamic country due to its ruling party called Justice and Development Party.”
I strongly oppose the second part of his assumption, due to his serious terminological error. First, the Jusitce and Development Party does not resemble political Islamist parties of Middle East. Rather, the JDP would be better identified as a conservative-centrist party. Second, although we assume JDP is an Islamist party, we could not identify the Turkish state as an Islamic one. The JDP may be the ruling party of Turkey, but it received only 39 percent of the vote in the last elections, on March 29 2009.
It is important that the Obama administration does not make the same mistake as Ignatius. I think that Turkey must be seen not as moderate Islamist, but as modern, democratic, and secular, and could be a role model for Middle Eastern countries.
I strongly believe that the combination of Obama’s policies, Turkey’s role as a balancing power, and increased dialogue between these two countries will contribute to the peace process in Middle East. These opinions may seem overly optimistic, but for the sake of Middle Eastern peace, we need optimism, rather than pessimism.
The author is an exchange student at Columbia College studying political science and international relations. He attends Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey.