- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

UPDATED:

ANKARA, Turkey — President Obama on Monday launched his campaign to reconcile the United States with a Muslim world that considered the last U.S. president to be at war with them, in a speech to the national assembly of this secular Islamic nation.

“The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” Mr. Obama said in an address to a few hundred legislators inside Turkey’s Grand National Assembly building. The line elicited an excited “Yes” from one woman and enthusiastic applause.

In a speech of more than 3,000 words, these 13 were the clearest denunciation of and break with the Bush administration’s hawkish approach to the fight against international terrorism by Islamic militants, which alienated much of the region from the U.S.

Mr. Bush himself said he was not at war with Islam, but many Muslims perceived U.S. policy, especially the invasion of Iraq, otherwise.

Mr. Obama also did not use the word “genocide” to describe the still controversial slaughter by the Turkish government of thousands of Armenians in 1915, breaking a promise he made during the campaign to condemn Turkey’s actions.

“I have not changed views. What I have been very encouraged by is … a series of negotiations, a process in place between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of longstanding issues, including this one,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference prior to the speech.

In the speech, Mr. Obama referred to “the terrible events of 1915” and urged Turkey to engage in an “honest, open and constructive” process with Armenia, and endorsed the idea of open borders between the two countries. He prefaced these comments by talking about America’s own “darker periods,” referencing discrimination against blacks and other minorities, and “the past treatment of Native Americans.”

He also gave strong support to Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union, but called on them to broaden rights for religious and ethnic minorities.

On the question of fighting terrorism, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. will partner with the Muslim world “in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject.” But he also said his administration will not base this partnership “just on opposition to al Qaeda.”

“We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said. “There are some who must be met with force. They will not compromise. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism.”

Mr. Obama said that Islam “has done so much over the centuries to shape the world,” but did cut out the phrase “for the better,” which had been in his prepared remarks.

The president’s visit, apart from any words he said, was a significant gesture of respect and bestowal of status on Turkey. He repeated what his advisers have said for days, that the Obama administration views Turkey as something of a key to unlocking many of the complicated and emotionally charged conflicts that have bedeviled past U.S. presidents for decades, as well as more recent ones.

His visit, Mr. Obama said, was “a statement about the importance of Turkey not just to the United States but to the world,” because of its location between Europe and the Middle East and between Islam and the West. Turkey has sought to separate church and state while remaining authentically Islamic, which has been an often bumpy road.

Turkey was also facilitating talks between Israel and Syria until Israel’s January invasion of the Gaza Strip, a process that could move the region closer to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians while also peeling Syria away from its alliance with Iran.

“We are very appreciative of the fact that Mr. Obama, having been elected president, made Turkey one of his stops in his first overseas visit,” said Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

In pressing the EU to admit Turkey, Mr. Obama said that “Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe’s foundation once more.”

But Mr. Obama used the very same logic to press Turkey to expand rights for religious and ethnic minorities, such as Turkish Kurds.

“Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama used America’s own struggle to award rights to blacks and Native Americans as an example: “All of us have to change, and sometimes change is hard.”

He urged the Turks to recognize that “Israel’s security concerns are legitimate” but also promised “support against the terrorist activities of the PKK,” or the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been active along Turkey’s border with Iraq and could be a key incentive for Turkey to stop blocking cooperation between NATO and the EU.

The president met with President Gul before the speech and after with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He will spend the last day of his week-long trip abroad in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama has focused on improved relations with the Muslim world from day one of his administration, giving his first TV interview as president to an Arabic channel, and taping a video greeting to the people of Iran on the occasion of their new year.

But his visit to Turkey was by far the most high profile move of his presidency aimed at pacifying the Mideast and Muslims worldwide.

“There are not tensions, inevitable tensions, between cultures,” Mr. Obama said during his press conference. “Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership in which a predominantly Christian nation and a predominantly Muslim nation, a Western nation and a nation that straddles two continents — that we can create a modern international community that is respectful, that is secure, that is prosperous.”

The White House insisted that Mr. Obama’s speech is not the speech that he promised to give within his first 100 days in office in an Islamic nation.

“This may be a distinction without a difference,” said Bulent Aliriza, who runs the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The entire Islamic world will be watching to see what kind of message he gives.”

The president “will start with a great advantage when he gets to Turkey, because his name is not George Bush,” he said.

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