By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009
President Obama will visit Turkey at the end of his European trip next month, a decision that reflects the moderate Muslim nation's central place in his emerging diplomatic approach to the Islamic world.
Obama's stop in Turkey, announced yesterday in Ankara by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, partly fulfills Obama's pledge to engage the Muslim world in a substantive way within his first 100 days in office. But the president is not expected to use the Turkey visit to deliver his anticipated address on Islam, a speech he promised during his campaign to give in a Muslim capital soon after taking office.
Turkey's place on his itinerary gives the young administration more time on the Muslim speech as Obama begins new diplomatic efforts with Syria and Iran, regional Muslim powers isolated for years by the George W. Bush administration. The visit extends the administration's public-relations campaign toward Islamic nations that began when Obama gave his first television interview as president to an Arabic satellite channel, a signal, administration officials said, of a new approach toward a population dismayed by U.S. policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
As a non-Arab Muslim nation, Turkey is well-placed to serve as a key administration ally on those issues. Governed by a moderate Islamist party, Turkey has managed to accommodate religious and secular values in its democratic system, something other governments in the Arab Middle East have been unable to achieve with the same success.
"Turkey is one of those countries that shows that there doesn't have to be a clash of civilizations," said Marc Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and vice chairman of the Cohen Group, a Washington-based consulting firm.
Obama's visit to Turkey is likely to conclude a European tour scheduled to begin early next month. On his second trip abroad since taking office, Obama's agenda will focus squarely on the worsening global financial crisis and security, particularly the flagging war effort in Afghanistan.
The president will first visit London for the Group of 20 summit, where leaders of the world's largest and emerging economies will discuss the global economic downturn. He then will travel to Strasbourg, France, for a NATO summit expected to feature a forceful U.S. appeal for more European troops in Afghanistan with fewer constraints placed on their deployment in combat zones.
Then Obama will go to Prague for a meeting of European Union leaders. Like many Eastern European economies, the Czech Republic is suffering the effects of the economic downturn more severely than many countries in the West.
In summarizing Obama's goals, Mike Hammer, the National Security Council spokesman, said, "The president looks forward to his trip to Europe in order to lead a coordinated effort to resolve the global economic crisis while also revitalizing our security alliance with our European partners and keeping Americans safe."
By concluding a European trip with a stop in Turkey, Obama is seeking to highlight its importance as a growing market, military ally and key player in securing oil and future natural gas from the Caspian region, administration officials and outside analysts said. Grossman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, said the Turkey visit "will have the effect of tying together all of his previous stops on the trip."
Turkey is a NATO member, and although it barred U.S. forces from invading northern Iraq through its territory, the Turkish government has about 800 troops deployed in Afghanistan. But Turkey has been kept out of the European Union -- something that has caused friction within the NATO alliance at a time when the Obama administration is seeking more European troops for Afghanistan -- despite U.S. support for its membership.
Some opponents of Turkey's E.U. bid have argued that its Muslim character is at odds with an alliance comprising Christian-majority countries, although most of the resistance has focused on Turkey's economic reform requirements.
A senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said: "This visit is not about healing some E.U.-NATO rift. This is about underscoring our deep alliance with Turkey, that it is an important part of Europe, and that it is an important voice in the Muslim world."
Turkey's elected Islamist government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been presented as a model in the Arab Muslim world where some more radical Islamist parties are gaining political influence. But there is a constant contest in Turkish politics between the Islamist parties and the nation's military leadership, which has intervened several times over the years to topple governments that it believed strayed from modern Turkey's secular founding principles.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has served as an intermediary in talks between Israel and Syria over the status of the Golan Heights, the key to an eventual peace agreement between the two countries. Those efforts were waylaid by the recent Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which drew condemnation across the Muslim world.
But Turkey, which also has relations with the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which controls Gaza, is viewed by many European and U.S. diplomats as an essential bridge between the Jewish state and its Arab Muslim neighbors.
Last week, the Obama administration sent two envoys to Damascus, the Syrian capital, in an effort to revive diplomacy between the countries that has been largely dormant since the Bush administration recalled its ambassador four years ago. Some analysts said Obama's visit will provide an opportunity for him to hear firsthand from Turkish leaders what they have learned working with Syria as he begins to do the same.
Turkey is also a key link in the delivery of oil and natural gas from the resource-rich Caspian basin. The administration has great interest in the development of a natural-gas pipeline that would follow roughly the same route as an oil pipeline now running from the Caspian region through Turkey. In a statement issued with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Clinton reiterated the administration's desire to "enhance energy security and to expand the Southern corridor" for natural gas and oil delivery.