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Why Is Obama Paying So Much Attention To Turkey?

President Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival in Ankara
President Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival in Ankara
ISTANBUL (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in Turkey for the start of a two-day tour, the first predominantly Muslim country he is visiting since taking office.

During his first day in Ankara, April 6, he will address the Turkish parliament and hold talks on Turkey's role in the Caucasus and the Mideast.

Then, on April 7 he attends a major international conference in Istanbul to promote East-West dialogue.

So far, Obama has spent most of his first presidential trip abroad dealing with alliances.

Those include the G20 for confronting the global economic downturn, NATO for reinforcing efforts in Afghanistan, and the EU for strengthening trans-Atlantic ties.

Turkey is his only visit focused on a single state, and his only stop in a predominantly Muslim country before he heads home on April 8.

Why is he giving so much attention to Turkey?

In Turkey, Obama has a venue for addressing a number of problems at once -- from Iraq, to the Caucasus, to Iran. And he can highlight the apparent readiness of Ankara -- a major regional power -- to endorse his drive to explore diplomatic solutions to ease regional tensions.
If Obama makes common cause with Erdogan, there is a danger that in Turkey he may be seen as showing too much confidence in a leader whose populist Islamist party is heavily criticized by Turkey's secular establishment

For Iraq, Washington wants Ankara and other neighborhood states to help create a stable political environment as the United States looks to withdraw troops.

In the Caucasus, Washington wants to counter Russian moves to cow Georgia and bring it back into Moscow's orbit. The White House welcomes signs that Turkey may reopen its border with Armenia and play a larger role overall in the Caucasus, where the United States and Turkey, as well as Russia, have major energy interests.

And Washington may want to explore more direct cooperation with Turkey's own efforts to use its economic and political clout to become a broker for talks between such varied players as Syria and Israel, or Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Turkish Regional Ambitions

Turkish analysts say the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen to make Turkey a major regional diplomatic power and is ready to work with Obama.

Mustafa Akyol, the deputy editor of the "Hurriyet Daily News," an English-language publication in Istanbul, said the Turkish government hopes "that we can be the party that can really build soft power in the region."

"They have tried it with Syria and Israel, they tried to talk with Hamas and give advice on restraint to Hamas and to stop their terrorist methods and enter into the peace process with Israel. But they haven't been fully able to do this because of two reasons," Akyol said.

"One reason was that the government felt the Bush administration was not very open to dialogue in the first place with these actors in the Middle East. So, when Obama came to power with a more reconciliatory tone, with a message that says 'I will talk and we [the United States] will listen,' and when Obama said he wants to engage in a process with Iran, Turkey said, 'Yes, this is what we have been waiting for.'"

Akyol and other analysts say Ankara's interest in using soft power also extends to the Iranian nuclear crisis, one of Obama's toughest challenges.

If Obama makes common cause with Erdogan, there is a danger that in Turkey he may be seen as showing too much confidence in a leader whose populist Islamist party is heavily criticized by Turkey's secular establishment.

That could be why the U.S. president is taking some highly visible steps during his visit to show he stands outside the Turkish Islamist-secular political divide.

In Ankara, Obama will meet with the leaders of Turkey's main opposition parties.

And, in an unprecedented move, he will also meet with the leader of Turkey's Kurdish party. That will endorse Ankara's extending greater cultural rights to the Kurdish minority as the government seeks to isolate the armed PKK, which both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

Obama will also address the Turkish parliament in Ankara. The White House has indicated the president will use the speech to discuss the progress of Turkey's democratic reforms and to reaffirm U.S. support for Turkey's bid to join the EU.

Speech To Muslim World?

There has been much speculation whether Obama will also use this trip for a major speech to the Muslim world. If such an opportunity arises, it would come in Istanbul on April 7, when he attends a UN-backed forum aimed at fostering dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. The forum is the Alliance of Civilizations, cochaired by Turkey and Spain.

Obama has said previously he would make an address to the Muslim world during his first 100 days in office. And Turkey, where opinion polls showed favorable views of the United States dropping from 52 percent in 2000 to just 9 percent in 2007 -- before moving up slightly to 12 percent last year -- might seem a convenient location.

But many analysts say Obama will not make Istanbul his platform for a formal policy address to Muslims. Instead, he is likely to speak at the conference in general terms.

The reason is -- again -- Turkey's own split identity between secularism and Islam.

Lale Sariibrahimoglu, an Ankara-based columnist for the daily "Today's Zaman," says Turkey's strongest defender of secularism, the army, resents Washington's past efforts to portray the country as a Muslim role model.

That includes the Bush administration's involving Turkey in its Greater Middle East Initiative to encourage democratic change in the Muslim world.

"The Bush administration's policy of seeing Turkey as the leader of moderate Islam in the world, as [an Islamic] role model, annoyed the Turkish establishment, led by the Turkish military," Sariibrahimoglu said.

"But when [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was here, she was asked on a talk show whether this is how Americans perceive Turkey, as a role model for moderate Islam, because the Turkish establishment doesn't like this terminology since we have a secular constitution. And she ruled out any such policy under the Obama administration."

Another analyst, Bulent Aliriza of the Washington-based think-tank CSIS, agrees. He says Obama, while in Turkey, is not likely in to go much beyond what he has already said from the White House.

"Although the White House is stressing that this is not going to be the location for his big, publicized message to the Islamic world that he promised to deliver in the first 100 days, it is a good opportunity to add it onto a European trip and underline the messages that he has already given through his interview with Al-Arabiya and the Norouz message to Iran to the Islamic world," Aliriza said.

In those messages, Obama encouraged Muslims angry at the United States to unclench their fists and grasp America's hand, extended to them in friendship, instead.

However, Aliriza said that while Obama may want to avoid any impression he is giving his promised "big speech" to Muslims in Istanbul, for the world audience it may be a distinction without a difference.

"In fact," said Aliriza, "the entire Islamic world will be listening to the message that Obama will give in Turkey to see whether he intends to follow through on his promise to establish a new, less confrontational relationship with the Islamic world."

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