Monday, April 6, 2009

Obama in Turkey

President Obama has included Turkey on his European tour, making it the first Muslim country he has visited as President, as reported in this New York Times article. The tour is deliberately framed as PD, meant to fix the existing chasm between close USA-Turkish relations at the government level, and the abysmal approval ratings the US holds among most Turks.

In a speech at Parliament, Obama said that the United States “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” and highlighted that he has Muslim family and grew up partly in a Muslim country to emphasize that Islam has a presence and a role in his country. He also backed away from his vote to condemn the Armenian Genocide as a Senator - he didn't mention the "g-word" and said that Turkey had to come to terms with its history on its own, making a further link to the US and Native Americans.

Two things I found particularly interesting was the article's attention to the domestic dangers of this move, as right-wing websites are still accusing Obama of being a closet Muslim. Though one would hope that this kind of fringe activity would not matter to US policy, foreign or domestic, its probably true that there is a larger group of Americans who, even if they don't think Obama is some kind of sleeper agent, are nevertheless disquited by this kind of outreach. This just goes further to the issues we've been discussing about America's pluralism as a liability, as well as the inability to seperate foreign messages from domestic ones as demanded and encouraged by the Smith-Mundt school of thought.

The other point was one interviewed Turks' response that:

“It makes me happy that the Islam lived in Turkey is seen as a better version compared with other countries and that the message would be sent out from here.”

Obama's media blitz not only improves the US image in Turkey, but can be argued to improve the image of Turkey and Islam internationally, particularly in Europe. However, like all PD strategies, this could also backfire, as some elements in the Muslim world can interpret this as the U.S. "endorsing" secular/moderate Islam and can use that as accusation against the latter current, tying moderate elements to U.S. unpopularity. Hopefully however, this tour does more harm than good, which is probably a better way of conceiving any PD strategy anyway.

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