Between Obama and McCain: The Turkish Dilemma

Turks attach a particular significance to the upcoming US elections for reasons going beyond their individual feelings about Bush, McCain or Obama. This is an expected outcome because Turkey is one of the few “friendly” countries that would be directly affected by the policies and style of the new American president.

Turkey had a special relationship with the US until the end of the Cold War centered on containing the Soviet Union. The partnership has become even more “strategic” because of the developments in Turkey’s region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The wars on Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, the need for alternative energy routes, 9/11, Afghanistan-Pakistan, international terrorism, promoting democracy in the Muslim world, Russia and others can be cited among them. Moreover, Turks recognize the US as one of their “real” anchors to the West, which is highlighted even more boldly at times when relations with its European partners sour.

Let me focus on the prevailing concerns of Turks. The first group of such concerns has to do with the pending issues in the region in which there is a heavy US involvement. The fate of the war on Iraq is the most imminent one. How soon will the US troops pull out of Iraq? What kind of Iraq will be left behind? Will the Kurdish region remain part of a unified Iraq or not? Will the PKK operate freely from northern Iraq and wage attacks on Turkey? The second concern is about Iran. Turks are not necessarily pleased by the regime in Iran nor by its nuclear program that poses a direct threat to Turkey. However, they don’t wish to see another war on their borders either. A peaceful solution is the hope of all Turks. Another issue is the rather complex puzzle of Russia, energy and the Caucasus. Turkey is, on the one hand, dependent on Russia for its natural gas consumption. On the other hand, it is one of the key players, together with the US, in promoting alternative energy routes bypassing Russia for economic and strategic reasons. At the same time, it is closely involved in the Caucasus where both Russia and Turkey have historic, economic and strategic interests. Russia is also one of Turkey’s largest trading partners. Will the new president treat Russia as the Soviet Union or be more engaging? Will the efforts to increase the alternative oil and energy pipelines be reinforced or not?

The second group of concerns consists essentially of one major bilateral impasse, which is the Armenian issue. Nearly every other year, an Armenian genocide resolution is presented to the US Congress, with the push of the Armenian Diaspora, aimed at condemning Turkey for the genocide of Armenians. Such initiatives are usually blocked by the efforts of the US administrations, which are aware of the sensitivities of the Turkish people and governments who strongly deny these allegations. The fear is that if the US administration ceases to fight these congressional attempts, then it would be practically impossible to stop such an “unfair” resolution from going forward and damaging a crucial partnership.

The Turks are split, not in terms of numbers but in terms of groups, between McCain and Obama. The establishment and part of the elite favoring McCain argue that he understands Turkey’s position concerning the Armenian issue as he publicly stated that this wasn’t genocide but a tragedy that took place during the Ottoman Empire, not modern Turkey. Also, his gradual pullout plan from Iraq and insistence on a unified Iraq are music to the ears of Turks. However, his stance on Iran and Russia causes equal concern as he echoes Bush’s hawkish policies and makes frequent reference to force. The men on the street and intellectuals favor Obama by a large margin, predominantly because he is the antithesis of what a republican president would represent. In contrast to McCain, while Obama’s positions on the Armenian issue and Iraq cause some concern, his stance favoring more dialogue and engagement with Iran and Russia relieves most Turks. Also, Obama represents the “change” and the “hope” for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

The world and Turkey need a change of style and substance in the American leadership as we are going through a major transformation in economic policies, environment, technology, role of the state and so on. Obama appears to be the best candidate to meet the challenges of our times. The change of mood he will bring would create a better climate and ease the tension for the world in general, and this would benefit Turkey as well. However, I’m afraid, Obama shall have to spend a considerable amount of time and energy in managing the high expectations placed on him by not only Americans but all of us.

* This article was originally published in the Netherlands in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad on November 1, 2008. If you would like to read the Dutch version of this article please click here.

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