September 8, 2011, Foreign Policy Center, Washington, DC
Obama Administration's low approval ratings, Turkey-Israel relations
QUESTION: Hi. This is Ilhan Tanir from the Turkish dailies Vatan and Hurriyet [Daily News]. Thank you for doing this. My first question is: Obama Administration, it has been more than two and a half years, and when we look at Middle East approval ratings of the Obama Administration, it’s even far below than the previous Administration, which is very interesting to many people. My question is: Why do you think that your Administration could not change this dismal picture?
And the second question is: Turkey and Israel, both close allies of the United States, but as you know, the relationship is going down the hill. At this point, Turkey expelled the ambassador and is saying that it’s going to dispatch the fleet, eastern Mediterranean. What’s your plan going forward to bring these two allies of yours on the table? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Thanks for the questions. I’ll take the first one first. Since the President came into office, since you cited polling data, you’re correct in that what we’ve seen is very dramatic improvements in the view of the United States and the view of American leadership in many parts of the world – in Africa, in Latin America, in Europe, and Asia. However, in the Middle East and North Africa, we continue to see a very difficult situation in terms of public opinion associated with the United States.
On the one hand, we believe that can be attributed to what the President actually spoke about in Cairo in his speech, which is that there has been a mistrust that has developed over many, many years, if not decades, between the United States and the peoples of the region. And that can be attributed to a whole host of political and security issues which have been sources of tension in the region and between the United States and the people of the region. So we always anticipated that it was going to take a long time, frankly, to repair those relationships and to, again, improve the standing of the United States in the eyes of the people of the region.
We believe we’ve done a number of important steps in service of that goal. For instance, we are on track in terms of our efforts to remove, thus far, a hundred thousand troops from Iraq, end our combat mission there, and to go down to, again, concluding our efforts in Iraq by the end of the year with regard to our troop presence.
We similarly launched a number of programs in the region that are aimed at developing ties between the people of the region and the United States. Of course, the political and security issues dominate the agenda, but we believe that by investing now in educational programs, entrepreneurship programs, science and technological exchanges, that you can lay the groundwork for a deeper relationship in the future. And, in fact, Turkey has very usefully expressed interest in some of those programs, particularly the entrepreneurship program, which I know Prime Minister Erdogan has expressed an interest in as well.
At the same time, I think people are frustrated by a lack of progress on some issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli issue. And I think it is only natural to expect that when people don’t see progress on an issue that they care deeply about, that that engenders frustration. But what I think the President has shown is he’s persistent in his pursuit of a two-state solution and an Arab-Israeli peace, and he’s going to continue to be persistent in those efforts going forward. But I think a lack of progress, particularly on that issue, has continued to be a point of contention.
At the same time, we see enormous opportunity in the changes that are taking place across the region, and I think this is something that President Obama shares with Prime Minister Erdogan, which is a belief that as nations transition to democracy, it actually can help bring about deeper and healthier relationships between the United States and the governments and peoples of the region. So right now, we’re deeply invested in supporting democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. We’ve obviously played a pivotal role in the efforts to support the aspirations of the Libyan people. And we’re, again, pressing for change in different countries across the region in different ways, whether it be Syria or Bahrain or other countries that are wrestling with the issues associated with the Arab Spring.
So we believe that even as there are still challenges, that we are laying the groundwork for a much stronger and deeper relationship between the United States and the people of the region, one that resolves a lot of the political and security issues that have been points of contention, that invest in democratic transitions that are successful for the people of the region and that will also allow deeper friendships between the United States and the people of the region. At the same time, we want to lay the groundwork through those people-to-people efforts, whether it be in entrepreneurship or education, so that we have a long-term foundation for a healthy relationship between the United States and the people of the region.
On your second question, we have – we believe that the relationship between Israel and Turkey in the past has been beneficial to both countries. It’s been beneficial to the stability of the region as well. They’re both very close U.S. allies who we work with on a range of issues. They’re both strong democracies and set a positive example through their democracies. So we’ve encouraged both Turkey and Israel to pursue the type of reconciliation that can reestablish those close ties. Obviously, those issues continue to be outstanding between the two governments, but I think the United States is going to continue to try to work with both countries to support efforts to rebuild those ties because, again, we believe that those are ultimately beneficial to both Israel and Turkey and to the region more broadly.