- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama’s stop in Turkey is hardly an afterthought, a “while I’m in the neighborhood” visit.

For starters, he wants to mend relations strained when the United States went to war in Iraq six years ago. Ankara’s Islamic-rooted government denied Washington’s request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq from the north. But Turkey also is in line for thanks for trying to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Turkey is the only predominantly Muslim country in NATO, an alliance stalwart and America’s best friend in the Islamic world. Mr. Obama, completing a European trip, arrives Sunday and undoubtedly will reprise his message from a town hall meeting Friday in France.

“We must be honest with ourselves. In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift,” he said at that appearance.

Before arriving, Mr. Obama played an especially high card intended to further soften his Turkish interlocutors.

At a luncheon Sunday for leaders of the EU’s 27 nations in Prague, he said the West should seek greater cooperation and closer ties with Islamic nations. Allowing Turkey to join the European Union would deepen that message, he contended.

France, Austria and other nations oppose Turkey’s long-running efforts to join the EU. Others in the organization have urged Turkey to do more to guarantee minority rights, curb the powers of its military and pass new rights for trade unions.

Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al Qaeda a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Turkey’s participation carries enormous symbolic importance because it is the only Muslim country with a presence in the fight against Islamic extremism.

In talks with Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Obama will try to sell his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He should find welcoming ears, given the new U.S. focus on melding troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in both countries.

“Obama may be able to create momentum for help from a broader sector of nominal U.S. allies in the Muslim world,” said Jeffrey Martinson, a historian and political scientist at Meredith College in North Carolina.

Turkey is one of only two key Muslim countries with cordial relations with Israel. The Turks, along with the Egyptians, are working with France in trying to maintain a cease-fire and broker a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza Strip. That is essential to America’s pledge to spare no effort in establishing peace between the ancient antagonists and establishing a Palestinian state.

Despite the likely good will, Mr. Obama must finesse the tangled issue of Turkey’s history with Armenia. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks leading up to and during World War I, an event widely viewed by many scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, claiming the toll has been inflated and the casualties were victims of civil war and unrest.

“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence,” Mr. Obama said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign Web site. “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president.”

So far, Obama aides refuse to say how he will deal with the legacy of that statement while in Turkey. Nor would they predict his stance on a resolution to be introduced soon in the House that describes the killings as genocide. His visit to Turkey also is uncomfortably close to the annual April 24 Armenian remembrance day.

Then there is Iran. Turkey’s eastern neighbor is accused by the United States and most of Washington’s European allies of trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The Turkish government supports Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful use, but wants Tehran to be transparent about its nuclear program and favors dialogue.

That goes along with Mr. Obama’s efforts to open a diplomatic front with Iran and the message from this past week’s Group of 20 summit. At that meeting, leaders said Iran must open up its nuclear program and support its claim that it does not intend to build a bomb.

Steven R. Hurst, AP international political writer, has covered foreign affairs for 30 years.

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