Stephen M. Walt

Talking Turkey

Talking Turkey

I haven’t watched a video of it, but the text of President Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament sure reads like a home run to me. He offered the gracious words of praise that any guest offers his hosts, but he also managed to be eloquent on matters of great sensitivity and to convey a healthy respect for his listeners. A few highlights, and maybe a bit a tea-leaf reading:

1. Obama began by noting that Turkey was “part of Europe,” and later said it “is not where East and West divide — it is where they come together.” And he made it unequivocally clear that the United States supports Turkey’s entry into the EU. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wasn’t pleased, but I’ll bet Obama’s audience was.

2. As he did in his famous speech on race during the campaign, Obama used his and our own experiences in order to address the delicate issue of Turkish-Armenian history. In the race speech, he invoked the example of his white grandmother to appeal to white Americans who were struggling in their own way with the implications of our troubled racial history. And he managed to do that in a way that conveyed his deep affection for her despite her human lapses. In this speech, he spoke of America’s own “darker periods,” and reminded his Turkish audience that “human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past.” He deftly turned attention away from his earlier comments about the Armenian genocide (and did not use that word), by noting that “this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past.” By referring to America’s own treatment of blacks and native Americans, and to our shameful reliance upon torture under President Bush, he avoided the self-congratulatory hubris that appeals to American audiences but usually puts foreign audiences’ teeth on edge.

3. He thanked Turkey for its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and once again stated that the United States “strongly supports” the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace. His language treated the two sides equally, and he again committed himself to “actively pursuing” that goal.

4. Obama also went to some lengths to engage the Muslim world in a broad and expansive manner that looked to the future instead of dwelling on the past. He acknowledged that there have been strains in recent years and made it clear that the United States was still committed to combating terrorism. Yet he emphasized that “America’s relationship with the Muslims cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda.” I’m sure that played better than “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists.”

5. Finally, I was struck by the language he used when addressing Iran’s nuclear program. He said that “the peace of the region will also be advanced if Iran forgoes any nuclear weapons ambitions” (my emphasis), adding that “Iran’s leaders must choose whether they will build a weapon or build a better future for their people.” Was this a subtle hint that the United States might be willing to tolerate Iranian enrichment, provided that we are confident that it was not masking a covert weapons program? Hmmmmm.

All in all, I thought it was a terrific speech. But my opinion hardly matters: the real question is what his audience thought. I’ll be very interested to see what they have to say about it.   

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images