Obama’s tepid Turkish welcome

Iason Athanasiadis, for the Pulitzer Center
Istanbul, Turkey

For president-elect Barack Obama, his arrival on the international scene has been one of near-universal acclaim. Around the world, he is seen as the man who can transform the perception of an ailing America and reclaim that country's ideal of being "the shining city upon a hill". Except in Turkey.

Even fiercely anti-American Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeted Obama's coming with one of his trademark letters, welcoming him to the global fraternity of leaders but advising him to substitute what he called "war-oriented policies, occupation, bullying and discriminatory policies" with "respect and non-interference in other countries' state matters".

Italian President Silvio Berlusconi raised eyebrows with his racially-tinged quip that Obama is "young, handsome and even tanned". Elsewhere in Europe, much of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, jubilation greeted Obama's win.

But in historically pro-US Turkey, a strange silence reigns.

"Your message of change and hope meets today's expectations," wrote Turkish President Abdullah Gul in a seemingly underwhelmed missive to Obama. "Turkey embraces this message."

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was similarly reserved in his praise, merely noting that "the election result shows there is no longer a black-white problem in the United States."

The reason for Turkey's apparent apathy towards the victor of an election widely seen as one of the signposts in contemporary American political history, is Obama's stance on the controversy over whether the slaughter of Armenians during the dying years of the Ottoman Empire was a genocide or not. Obama has clearly stated that he believes it was and will recognize it upon becoming President.

"For those who aren't aware, there was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," Obama said in comments sure to make him unpopular with the Turkish government.

Ankara denies the deaths of an estimated one million Armenians starting in 1915 were anything more than the product of inter-communal clashes at a time when the First World War was ripping through the weakened Ottoman Empire.

US-Turkish relations plunged to an all-time low last year when the Democrat-controlled Congress debated a resolution condemning the killing of an estimated one million Armenians.

Turkey recalled its ambassador and threatened a sharp deterioration in relations with Washington. Given that the country is a regional operational hub for the US military, which uses its airspace to supply US forces in Iraq, the Bush administration took the extraordinary step of publicly urging Congress to reconsider the vote. Congress did and the relationship was saved.

Now, an Obama victory could spell fresh tensions between the two allies.

"Starting tomorrow, the full force of the Turkish government will come down like a ton of bricks on Washington," said Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Committee, after the election.

Turkey has already switched its lobbying company in the US to a Democratic firm, abandoning its previous relationship with Republican Bob Livingston in April 2008. Turkish diplomats are trying to meet Obama this week when the Turkish premier will be attending an economic summit in Washington on November 15.

Back in Turkey, thousands of Americans living and working there celebrated Obama's win, daring to hope that it might mean that being an American abroad is fine once more. They traded stories of being the recipients of public displays of affection by ordinary Turks and prepared to retire adopted Canadian identities when negotiating the social minefield of being American in a Muslim country.

Other commentators used the rise of Obama to draw parallels between his rise and ascent of their very own Justice and Development Party. The editor-in-chief of the Radikal daily, Ismet Berkan, noted that "Turkey's ruling Justice & Development (AK) Party was, in a sense, like Obama. But perhaps they were not aware of it. They thought that the people voted for AK Party to approve their agenda of political Islam, not for change."

But Obamas can also come and go, Berkan warned.

"In that sense, AK Party was the last rural party in Turkey. Right for that reason, Turkey is looking for its Obama."

And Fehmi Kuru of the pro-Islamist Yeni Safak newspaper wrote that Erdogan came like Obama but turned into a "Bush", a reference to his hardening on the issues of Kurds, human rights and democracy.

The comparison with either of the American politicians did not amuse the nationalistically-minded Erdogan. He retorted that "I am neither Obama, nor Bush. If an example is needed, Ataturk or Ottoman sultans can be given. We have such people in our history," the Milliyet daily reported.