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Obama's Middle East speech and Turkish foreign policy

Not one single word in Obama’s Middle East speech included or even made a remote reference to Turkey.

This, from Turkey’s perspective, was the most important part of yesterday’s policy position statement. In traditional Turkish collective memory, Middle East has been a realm of ‘problem’, which Turkey had to stay away from; some of those memories are rooted in the late-Ottoman period during which the modernist-nationalist Committee of Union and Progress had attempted to impose a policy of Turkification upon the Arabs, which – together with other supporting factors – had laid the foundations of the 1916 Arab Revolt. Through much of the Republican period, Turkey defined itself as a ‘part of the West’ and much of the ruling elite would respond to Turkey’s classification as a ‘Middle Eastern country’ with correction. Although the current ruling party AKP had masterminded the shift in Turkish foreign policy (‘shift’ is not a term that the Turkish foreign policy makers would choose; rather ‘diversification’ is a more correct word from that perspective) it had nonetheless worked to further Turkey’s EU bid through its earlier years in the government until sustained Franco-German resistance to Turkey’s accession negotiations blunted Ankara’s efforts to continue.

Some foreign policy analysts had suggested that following the rough period of post-Iraq war U.S.-Turkish relations, the first step the Obama administration should take was to explicitly define Turkey as a European country and part of the European system of states by including Turkey into President’s first European trip. The administration took the lead and visited Turkey in April 2009 as a part of his European trip, also rendering Turkey as the first Muslim country Obama visited after his inauguration.

Then his June 2009 Cairo speech. There, Obama made two references to Turkey, but the first one was an appraisal of Turkey’s ‘Alliance of Civilizations’ project and the second one was another appraisal of Turkey as being one of the rare Muslim countries in which women were elected to lead governments. But otherwise Turkey was kept safely away from the ‘problematic’ group of other Middle Eastern countries.

Now the ‘Arab spring’ speech, which dealt largely with the problematic-transitory period the Middle East is going through and no mention of Turkey. Don’t get me wrong, most Turks would be more than happy to be left outside that speech, given the content and feeling of the statements, but nonetheless Obama’s speech conveyed the right message (by the official Turkish standards) to Turkey by not mentioning it at all.

As far as what he did mention on the other hand, the ‘Arab Spring Speech’ reveal many convergences between Turkish and U.S. objectives in the region. In an earlier blog post, I had mentioned that the U.S. and Turkish foreign policy interests in the Middle East are not inherently conflictual, but the methods and tools with which both countries approach the region were different. I had warned that if the State Department and Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to find a way to operationalize these common goals, they may end up being ‘two cooks in the same kitchen’. As far as Obama’s willingness to give Turkey a freer hand in trying to find alternative diplomatic ways to deal with the Libya crisis and the Syrian uprising, the U.S. side seems to have come to an understanding of Ankara’s cultural and historical value the region and what it can diplomatically achieve with that (though critics who question Turkey’s utility in that regard remain).

Secondly, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the previous administration that had caused the U.S. to diplomatically fail in a number of important policy areas – foreign policy attitude and discourse – seems to be clearly identified by Obama: ”As we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo — it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome.” This perhaps was the most welcome message as far as Turkey was concerned, whose diplomats had been highly annoyed with their patronizing Bush-era counterparts, as clearly outlined in Turkey’s chief Iraq war negotiator Deniz Bölükbaşı’s book. A sense of humility resonates more deeply in Turkish (and regional) culture as it does in the United States, so this will be one of the most welcome aspects of Obama’s speech in Turkey.

Third, Obama’s speech emphasized political reform and economic improvement over military intervention; exactly the same warning had been made repeatedly by the Turkish decision-makers, most important perhaps being foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In this, Obama’s de-emphasis of the use of force and rather intention to throw U.S. support behind the already flourishing democratic movements in the region as well as his policy of asking the European Union to further extend and strengthen trade ties with the Middle East appear to be perfectly convergent with Turkey’s priorities. This will also render Turkey as another bridge – economic – between Europe and the Middle East, potentially allowing Ankara (or Istanbul) to strengthen its role as a financial hub.

So far, the most highlighted aspect of Obama’s speech in the Turkish media has been his warning to Syria’s Assad, offering him the alternative to ‘change or leave’. I had mentioned in an earlier post that Turkey and the United States are in consensus over what to do with the Syria uprising and that Turkey had been trying to resolve the conflict through peaceful methods without too much direct involvement from the United States. Yesterday’s speech is seen in the Turkish media as a clear indication that the U.S. patience with Assad’s suppression methods is waning and so far much of the Turkish media is portraying this as an ultimatum.

Tomorrow I will post more on how Obama’s speech is covered in the Turkish media.



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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