President Barack Hussein Obama swooped into Turkey on April 6 for two days of fence-mending bilateral relations with erstwhile, if sometimes prickly, ally Turkey while disseminating a message of friendship to the wider Muslim world. Obama cut a dashing figure, mesmerizing the normally skeptical Turkish public with self-deprecating references to his inspirational life story of struggle and achievement.
This trip can be characterized as a success in terms of public diplomacy. Opinion polls indicate that Turks have a growing favorable attitude toward Obama. Turkey s media was also mostly upbeat, bringing into sharp focus the contrast between the positive vibes toward Obama and the negative perceptions of former President George W Bush. Meanwhile, President Obama heaped praise on Turkey s European perspective, democratic and secular traditions, and regional aspirations in the Middle East. He deftly maneuvered around the hot Armenian issue without conceding on his points of principle.
Obama also awed audiences beyond Turkey. After all, the visit was not just about Turkey but additionally about the Muslim world. His speech to the Turkish parliament – in which the sound bite that the US is not at war with Islam was interpreted as a radical break with Bush s war on terror rhetoric – attracted the close attention of the Arab media.
Now that the party is over, a more sober assessment of the ultimate impact of the Turkey jamboree is needed. For starters, it is fair to say that US-Turkey relations witnessed a rapid turnaround before Obama, during the tail end of previous administration, after President George W. Bush agreed to actively cooperate with the Turkish military against Kurdistan Workers Party combatants infiltrating Turkey from northern Iraq.
But Obama s charm offensive has generated heightened expectations of a substantive shift in US foreign policy, specifically targeting the Middle East. Turkey welcomes Obama s current desire to open dialogue with Iran and Syria, as well as the ongoing plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by mid-2010 and all troops by the end of 2011. But, as always, the real litmus test will be the US stance on the dispute between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. How the US handles the new government in Israel and the glaring divide between Palestinian groups will be closely watched by Turkey and the Muslim world.
Naturally, heightened expectations are not just a one-way street. Obama expects Turkey to deliver on its promises to improve ties with Armenia by re-opening the border that has been closed since 1993 and establishing diplomatic relations. Whether Turkey can re-open the border in the absence of a resolution to the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh is open to debate. Yet, there is a serious risk of disappointment in Washington if promises fall short or flat.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan s increasingly abrasive style of diplomacy, displayed in full during his adamant opposition to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen s candidacy to take the helm at NATO, could eventually irk US policymakers. Obama seems to prefer a Turkish foreign policy of the quiet and constructive type rather than one based on emotional gestures and religious undertones. So the ground exists for some disappointment here as well.
Despite the pitfalls, there is no doubt that US-Turkey relations are, at least for now, on a firmer, realistic footing. Gone are the poisonous atmospherics, in come greater mutual cooperation and respect. However, the present mood cannot be taken for granted. That the stability of instability in the Middle East and Caucasus could provoke events that scuttle relations with Turkey is possible, perhaps resulting from the Israel-Arab bifurcation, Iran s nuclear endeavors, Iraq, Afghanistan or Armenia, to name just a few examples. Public diplomacy was the easy part. Delivery is a far harder prospect.
Fadi Hakurais the Turkey analyst at Chatham House in London. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.