Turkey Is Ready to Welcome Obama

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Mustafa Ozer / AFP / Getty

Commuters walk past advertisements depicting President Barack Obama in a metro station in Istanbul

American presidents have visited Turkey before but never this soon into their presidency. That's just one reason why Barack Obama's arrival this Sunday evening has all of Turkey aflutter. Turks see Obama's visit as proof of his commitment to building bridges with the Muslim world, as well as a reflection of the new administration's desire to have Turkey — with a Muslim majority but officially secular, democratic and a candidate for E.U. entry — play a much bigger role in the wider region.

Before his election Obama promised to visit a Muslim country within his first few months as president — and he has chosen one that had fraught relations with his predecessor in the White House. In 2003, Ankara broke with its traditional ally by refusing U.S. troops passage through Turkish territory to neighboring Iraq, an act of defiance from which ties never fully recovered. Public support for the U.S. in Turkey fell to historic lows as the war progressed. Washington was further aggravated by the Turkish government's pursuit of greater engagement with the Islamic world, including an energy deal with Iran and talks with leaders from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (See pictures of Obama's travels in Europe.)

Both Washington and Ankara seem ready to start over. Both see Turkey playing an important role in regional issues, from Syrian-Israeli peace talks to oil and gas security in the Caucasus and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "Under Bush, Ankara and Washington were divided on many fronts," says Sahin Alpay, politics professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. "With Obama, they are moving closer together on all of these."

It helps that Turks are already warming to the new president. One recent poll found that 39% of Turks said they trusted Obama; fewer than 10% said the same of Bush. Obama is so popular that a leading Turkish bank is running an ad campaign based on an Obama look-alike.

During his stay, Obama is expected to seek Turkish support for his Afghanistan and Pakistan plans, a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Turkey currently maintains about 900 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO contingent there, and, as the only Muslim country involved, its presence is crucial to securing support on the ground. Obama is expected to push for an increase in Turkish forces and to ask for Ankara's help in facilitating a smooth withdrawal from Iraq.

Obama's influence has already been telling. On Saturday he convinced Turkey to drop its objections to Dane Anders Fogh Rasmussen becoming the next head of NATO. Turkey had threatened to veto Rasmussen because of his handling of a 2006 crisis over controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. According to White House officials, Obama promised Turkey that one of Rasmussen's deputies would be a Turk and that Turkish commanders would be present at the alliance's command.

It won't all be roses though. Dividing his time between the capital Ankara, where he will address Turkish MPs, and Istanbul, where he is to meet with religious leaders and youths, Obama is also expected to deliver a message urging Turkey to embrace further democratic reforms and to refocus on its long-term goal of joining the European Union. Movement towards membership of the E.U. has stalled, both because of European leaders' unwillingness to contemplate a future with Turkey, and the current government's Islamic leanings, which have led it to turn eastwards and greater involvement with the Middle East. "The United States must remain an iron clad supporter of Turkish membership in the E.U.," 29 Democratic and Republican Congressmen wrote in a letter to the president prior to his departure.

In Ankara, Obama will also hear from opposition leaders, including the country's only legal Kurdish party, whom the government refuses to engage with to address the grievances of the large and restive Kurdish minority based mostly in the southeast. Kurdish lawmakers say they will speak to the president about ending the conflict with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which spills over into Iraq and is potentially destabilizing for the region, and more regional autonomy.

Another contentious point on the agenda is the continuing effort in the U.S. Congress to recognize the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces as a genocide, a term Turkey rejects. While campaigning, Obama said he would recognize the killings as genocide but has given no sign that he will raise the issue while here. He may be helped by the fact that Ankara is quietly working to normalize relations with Armenia and is expected to re-open its border shortly. That announcement could be made during the Obama visit.

But despite the likelihood of some disagreements, Turkish officials see the trip as a chance to strengthen ties with an old ally and an opportunity to put the past eight years behind them. "Obama is turning away from previous confrontational policies to dialogue," says Alpay. "And Turkey represents the possibility of a solution through dialogue on many problems which are important to him."