Friday, April 30, 2010
U.S. President Barack Obama gathered yet another unprecedented summit in Washington, D.C., this past week, following the International Nuclear Security Summit held a couple of weeks ago. More than 300 delegates from 56 Muslim countries participated in the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.
Turkey sent several exciting delegates, most of whom I was able to have long conversations with on the sidelines of the summit.
Obama convened this summit, in which the participants were mostly small-business owners, innovators and businessmen, to further forge ties with Muslim countries. He made sure his intentions would be well understood by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his treasury and education secretaries and many other high-level officials to the summit to give talks and mingle with the guests. Some other White House officials also made themselves ready for open-ended interviews to talk about the importance of the summit, which is a rare occurrence at any rate.
The biggest surprise of the summit for us was that Turkey was selected to organize the second summit in 2011.
Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an e-mail message that as “President [Obama] outlined in his Cairo speech nearly a year ago, the United States is keen to deepen our engagement with Muslim communities around the world and also develop new partnerships based on mutual respect and mutual interests... entrepreneurship can unlock tremendous potential, promote education, foster innovation and create jobs. We deeply appreciate Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue; it is yet another tangible example of the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership.”
Another White House official told me last week during the summit that it was confirmed only one day before the event started that Turkey would host the second one. It is noteworthy that this confirmation came right after April 24, when Obama released his statement on the Armenian day of remembrance.
Though Muslim countries sent delegations to Washington, the gap between the two has not shrunk. There are a number of obstacles that keep stirring up anti-American sentiment in Muslim countries. For example, the never-ending attacks by Afghanistan-based U.S. forces, which have repeatedly caused the killing of innocent people, are one of the biggest factors injecting more strain. Raising tension with Iran also sends mixed signals to the Muslim world as the situation appears to be that the U.S. wants to take on another Muslim country, after Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever the reason. And finally, in addition to many other issues, the lack of progress on the Palestine-Israel peace process continues to weaken Obama’s standing in the Muslim world.
There are Middle East experts in Washington who have already announced the death of the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, a big source of anti-American sentiments in the region. One of those experts is Dr. Reza Aslan, the author of “Beyond Fundamentalism,” who visited the region very recently and gave a talk at the Rumi Forum last week. According to Aslan, the two-state solution is already dead and buried because neither party is ready and willing to reach that solution. The Palestinian leadership, Aslan argued, lost the trust of Palestinian people with its ineptitude and corruption.
The ideological settlers group has a bigger sway in the current Israeli government; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself considers Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state and does not shrink from building in any part of the city, which fuels Palestinians’ anger.
Therefore, even though inviting representatives from more than 50 Muslim countries to Washington seemed like a wonderful idea to show Obama is committed and has taken another step toward the Muslim world, it falls flat in comparison to the colossal issues just discussed.
Dozens of analyses and opinion pieces on the Iranian conundrum appear every day; for the approximately half-dozen experts I talked to this week, the confusion and speculation over the issue is visible.
Svante Cornell, the research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies Program, said Turkey has had a two-fold foreign-affairs policy outlook for some years now. While trying to warm its relationships with countries that are condemned by the West one way or another, such as Iran, Syria and Sudan, Turkey also strives to maintain good relations with the West.
Cornell calls this policy a “balancing game” and claims Turkey wants to walk this thin line without damaging its relations with either side.
The worst scenario for the Turkish balancing game, Cornell predicted, would be a military confrontation in the region. The second-worst scenario would be a clash over sanctions at the United Nations Security Council, which is expected this spring.
In recent weeks and days, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has also been intensely pushing for strong sanctions against Iran. Sarkozy made his first visit to China this past week since the relations between France and China went sour following a previous episode over Tibet. However, the president of China did not comment publicly on the sanctions issue after the meetings.
Cornell says it appears as if the Obama administration just wants to pass “a package” but does not care much what will be in it. That’s why the Obama administration is watering down the package and getting ready to live with a nuclear Iran.
Turkey has made clear its views on the sanctions package. In a speech a couple of weeks ago in Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reminded first about the past sanctions experience with Iraq, and how Turkey lost economically during this time. Davutoğlu seemed unwavering about another sanctions package this time. Turkey plainly lauds its disbelief on the utility of the sanctions by repeating a “sanctions don’t work” slogan.
Today’s Turkish administration, which has been promoting proactive and friendly policies in its region close to a decade now, views applying sanctions on Iran as being against its economic interests and friendlier Middle East policies.
On the other side, the Obama administration will likely not seek retribution against Turkey for such opposition at the U.N. Security Council, according to another Washington-based Iranian-American security analyst.
For President Obama, who has many hurdles to tackle before mending ties with the Muslim and Arab world, Turkey occupies a significant post; it is a country that cannot be overlooked or risk being lost, even if it ends up opposing sanctions.