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Turks Warm To Obama Charm Offensive

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a student roundtable in Istanbul.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a student roundtable in Istanbul.
ISTANBUL -- U.S. President Barack Obama has wrapped up his visit to Turkey, spending his final hours in Istanbul speaking to Turkish students in the kind of roundtable forum that has become one of his trademarks.

The event was informal but may have helped underline one of the main points of Obama's visit to this predominantly Muslim country: to improve the image of the United States.

As the students filed out, they praised the U.S. president for speaking about some of their biggest concerns.

"The message that was important for me and I believe of the utmost importance for my other young friends was mostly about peace in the world: in the Middle East, he talked about Iran, Iraq, all those countries, including Turkey. He just wanted peace and he told us that it [comes] through us, the young leaders of their countries," said Cinar Yesil, one of about 100 university students in the audience.

Her fellow student, Dilara Celik, agreed. "Relations between the United States and Muslim countries are very important and he mentioned it,” she said. “He said that he would try to improve it. So, I think these things are good for the world and I am hopeful for Obama."

Student Ertugrul Konukoglu, had much the same thought. "I think that President Obama was very impressive and his words were very important for Turkey and other Muslim countries because he said [he wants] always peace for everyone and this is what we want to hear from him," Konukoglu said.

Reaching Out To Muslim World

If this event was aimed at sending a clear message, it was that Washington wants to improve the negative image the United States has gained among the world's Muslims. And the way the Obama administration wants to do this is through dialogue and partnership.

The size of the challenge was revealed in a major opinion poll last year, the Pew Global Attitude Project, which showed favorable views of the United States sinking in Turkey from some 52 percent in 1999 to as low as 9 percent in 2007, before moving up slightly to 12 percent last year.

Turkish women protest U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That highly unfavorable view was echoed by low ratings for the United States in many other predominantly Muslim countries. Large majorities of respondents said they thought of America as "more of an enemy" rather than "more of a friend."

There had been much speculation before Obama went to Turkey that he would use his stop here to deliver a major speech to the Muslim world. He had previously promised to make a formal address within his first 100 days in office.

But he did not do so, choosing instead to mention U.S.-Muslim relations as just part of his remarks to the students or in his speech to the Turkish parliament in Ankara on April 6.

…But Talking With Turkey

That choice likely reflects the fact that Turkey is an officially secular country, although its population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Parts of the Turkish establishment, including the military, have objected in the past to Washington's trying to present Turkey as an example for the rest of the Muslim world.

So, Obama had to go carefully. And, given the positive reviews his trip has earned in the Turkish press, he appears to have found a successful middle ground.

"Obama talked about the fact that democracy was achieved in Turkey by Turkey, internally, and of the significance of the Turkish experience with the coexistence of Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, or with achieving secularism in a highly Muslim population, all of which is a very important achievement as an alternative to the clash of civilizations," says Fuat Keyman, an expert on foreign relations at Koc University in Istanbul.

It remains to be seen whether Obama's Turkey trip will give a boost to U.S. ratings in new opinion polls. But Obama gained additional praise here by stressing that the United States wants to work with Turkey and other countries as a partner. That is after the United States has frequently been accused in recent years of too much unilateralism.

"I think the Obama administration has been experiencing what I would call the restructuring of American hegemony in the world on the basis of leadership rather than domination. And in this process, the G20 meeting was a sign, the NATO summit was a sign, and Obama's visit to Turkey was a sign," Keyman says.

"Turkey is expected to play an important role and I think Obama's trip achieved that goal and we are now going to have much deeper relations between Turkey and the U.S. in security [risk] zones."

Obama endorsed Turkey's efforts to become a major regional diplomatic power, efforts that have included Ankara brokering talks between regional antagonists such as Syria and Israel and between reluctant partners such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And Obama may have given impetus to Ankara's interest in reopening its border with Armenia -- closed in 1993 over the Armenia-Azerbaijan war -- by endorsing Turkey's efforts to become more involved in stabilizing the Caucasus.

All this is the kind of thing that the students coming out of the roundtable termed Obama's desire to foster peace in the world.

How easily the world's leaders can realize the ideals of young people in any country is, of course, an open question. But the talk in Istanbul as Obama left was that the U.S. leader had both spoken to Turkey's young people -- and taken the time to listen.

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