Admirers, Hopeful of Change, Await U.S. President in Turkey

Reflecting his popularity in this predominantly Muslim nation, a Turkish bank has been using Obama's likeness in advertisements.
Reflecting his popularity in this predominantly Muslim nation, a Turkish bank has been using Obama's likeness in advertisements. (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009

ANKARA, Turkey, April 4 -- Shoe shiner Kasim Kirsakal sat outside a mosque, directly across from a bank using a poster of President Obama to promote low-interest loans.

"Obama is trustworthy; that's why people like those ads," he said, referring to Garanti Bank's poster campaign and its popular television spot, in which an Obama look-alike promotes the bank at a mock White House news conference.

When Obama arrives in Turkey on Sunday night for a two-day visit to this capital city and Istanbul, he will find a nation of nearly 72 million Muslims almost giddy at the prospect of improved relations with the United States after years of tension with the Bush administration.

"Obama is going to just mesmerize people," said Ali Carkoglu, professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul. "He's going to be a rock star."

By making a high-profile visit to this proudly secular, predominantly Muslim nation on his first overseas trip, Obama is signaling Turkey's strategic importance as a bridge between the West and the Middle East.

Turkey, which borders Greece and Bulgaria to the west and Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to the east, is an increasingly active player in nearly every major issue affecting U.S. relations in the region.

It is a member of NATO and the Group of 20 leading economies; it holds a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council (for the first time since 1961); and it is pressing to join the European Union.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has been deeply involved in dialogue between Israel and Syria, and with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it has about 1,200 troops deployed as part of a NATO force. Incirlik, a U.S. air base in southern Turkey, is a key staging area for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turkey is also a critical part of the supply route for energy reserves flowing from the Caspian Sea to Western markets. Dependent on Iran for much of its oil, Turkey is a valuable partner as Washington looks to engage Tehran.

"During the Bush administration, we had some different views. But now we have identical policies with the Obama administration," said Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser, who called Obama's visit "historic."

"If you look at the agendas of the two countries, it is almost the same," he said. "Our experience in the region and their new approach are very compatible."

During his visit, Obama will address the Turkish parliament -- the first U.S. president to do so since Bill Clinton in 1999 -- and meet with religious leaders. He will also make high-profile visits to the tomb of secularist national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, one of Islam's most stunning sites.

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