President Obama yesterday gave a pretty good speech to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara. It was not perfect. As Michael Rubin notes, Obama rhetorically subscribed to the idea of a unitary “Muslim world.” He further cited Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid as a forebear of the Turkish “nation,” after noting that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk freed Turkey from “foreign control.” Atatürk also overthrew the Ottoman sultans.
These comments, however, merely reflect speechwriters’ cramming. The thrust of the speech — that we desire U.S.-Turkish friendship, that America is not hostile to Islam qua Islam, that Turkey continues with its reforms in order to join the European Union, etc. — was anodyne and well directed. (The president’s most dead-on cultural appeal was not his lame evet for “yes,” but rather the invocation of the NBA’s Hedo Türkoğlu and Mehmet Okur. And why no “yes, we can” in Turkish? Is evet yapabiliriz” too hard to say?)
Turkey currently polls as the most anti-American country on earth. Will President Obama’s largely symbolic visit turn this massive public-relations problem around? I suspect it will. (Wipe the coffee off your keyboard.) Here’s why.
Turkish anti-Americanism is a conflation of two ideological strains: an Islamist anti-Westernism and a paranoid Turkish nationalism. The former is of a piece with the broader drift of the Muslim world over the past 30 years. In Turkey under the AKP government, it has gained ground. Many AKP voters are pious Muslims who look to ancestral religious traditions and culture for guidance in navigating the modern world. Unfortunately, most of the mediating institutions in Arab and Iranian culture (the respective poles of Sunni and Shiite prestige) have fallen under the sway of reductivist, politicized “Islam.” This anti-Western poison has seeped into Turkish society. The AKP has, at best, allowed this to happen to placate the religious zealots in its political base and, at worst, has cultivated this sentiment to differentiate itself from the secularist parties and capitalize on popular anger at the EU (which has constantly moved the goalposts for Turkey’s accession).
The second strain of Turkish anti-Americanism shares a Middle Eastern flair for conspiracy theories, but it might be more usefully analogized to Russian xenophobia. As President Obama noted, in the wake of World War One, the Allies attempted to carve up what is now Turkey, giving chunks of territory to Greece, Italy, and other countries. The Turkish War of Independence was fought to provide self-government for “Turks” (then loosely defined as “Anatolian Muslims,” the Turk-Kurd distinction not having become salient).
Therefore, a suspicion of European ambitions is encoded in Turkey’s political DNA. In one of history’s great ironies, the most paranoid Turkish institution — the armed forces — is also the most pro-Western and pro-secularist. In general, however, secularist Turks — like many Middle Easterners — have simply transferred the role of Evil Global Mastermind from Great Britain to the United States. So many highly educated, very reasonable, very intelligent Turks often harbor deep-rooted suspicions of U.S. intentions vis-à-vis their homeland. The expressions of these are often paradoxical to the point of comedy: The U.S. is portrayed as viciously and inherently anti-Muslim one week, while the next week it is accused of using Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP as a cat’s paw to Islamicize Turkey and overthrow the Republic.
Both of Turkey’s anti-American strains have been amplified in recent years by the increased prominence of media adopting a “Muslim” line, and also by the global unpopularity of the Bush administration. The Turkish press has painted a lurid and fantastical portrait of the United States. When combined with the anti-American prejudices cited above, this has inspired the feverish anti-Americanism reflected in the polls.
How, then, could a largely ceremonial visit by President Obama turn around this powerful public mood? For one thing, the AKP needs assistance. As the most insightful American commentator on Turkish affairs — Istanbul resident Claire Berlinski — has written, the Turkish economy (and therefore the political status quo) may well be a house of cards: or perhaps an apartment building of sub-standard cement built on the Istanbul earthquake fault and approved by a corrupt building inspector, unfathomable to outside observers and insiders alike. Erdoğan must know this.
Moreover, President Obama himself is a standing rebuke to the clichéd calumnies of “racist America” that most Turks have grown up with. It is an impressive enough anomaly, in Kuhnian terms, that the media-driven paradigm is weaker than it’s been in years.
In addition, the AKP — having stoked Islamist and nationalist sentiments with its vehement anti-Israeli and somewhat less vehement anti-American rhetoric — has proven unable to ride the tiger. In recent municipal elections, rather than siphoning off the votes of extremist parties, the AKP saw its share of the vote decline from 47 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2009. It lost votes to both the Islamist Saadet Party and the ultranationalist MHP. Therefore, it’s very much in Erdoğan’s interest to declare a new day in U.S.-Turkish relations.
Obama is helping to defang the Islamic anti-American critique by playing the Muslim card. “The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans,” he told the Turkish Parliament. “Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them.” Meanwhile, a compliant, Obamaphilic press is doing its part. Turkish Newsweek’s cover this week features the president’s outstretched hand with the headline Ben Barack Hüseyin Obama (“I’m Barack Hussein Obama,” using the Turkish spelling of “Hussein”).
The Turkish nationalists will also lose ground in the absence of a government-driven crisis mentality. There have been two major crises in U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years. The first came after the first Gulf War, when, in the grand American tradition of leaving allies twisting in the wind, we failed to provide economic assistance as the
Turkish economy crashed. The second came when the Turkish Parliament denied America the use of Turkish territory to launch its 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq in 2003. This debacle resulted in a major crisis of relations between the U.S. and Turkish governments. Ordinary Turks were convinced that the Iraq War would precipitate a Kurdish refugee crisis and result in the creation of an independent Kurdistan at the expense of Turkish territory. Because that did not come to pass, this fear has been shelved for the moment.
Turkey is a media-saturated democracy with volatile popular opinion and a state-influenced media. Consequently, it’s quite vulnerable to a charm offensive, especially if the government is supportive. Erdoğan has ample reason to improve relations with the United States, and if Obama offers even a minimal gesture — for example, if he refrains from calling the 1915 Armenian massacre a “genocide” (yesterday Obama referred to the “terrible events of 1915”) — Erdoğan should once again try to be the poster child for “Muslim democracy.”
What will the average Mehmet Bey in the street think about all this? Probably what the average Briton, Frenchman, and German thought when Obama was elected: Oh good, all this unpleasantness is over. I don’t have to feel guilty about renting American DVDs any more.
Given Turkey’s strategic importance — as a NATO member, as Europe’s fastest growing country, as a Muslim democracy — a warming of relations is to be heartily welcomed. It will likely prove temporary; the broader currents continue to flow against U.S.-Turkish comity. However, if it were followed by new bilateral arrangements that helped to anchor Turkey in the democratic world while offering an end-run around the EU’s perpetual stalling, there would be some reason for hope.
(Here’s an article of mine with some suggestions. It’s dated and has proved overly optimistic, but some of the suggestions still pertain.)
– William J. Walsh is a freelance writer and longtime follower of foreign policy and Turkish affairs.