Turkey’s two top leaders were elated that President Barack Obama called them last week. Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used glowing terms to describe their talks with the President of the United States.
At a time when Turkey is facing a series of political setbacks—antagonizing Israel and American Jews by siding with Hamas in the Gaza conflict; failing in its self-appointed mediating role between Syria and Israel; and prompting Cyprus to threaten to veto Turkey’s application for European Union membership due to its continued occupation of Northern Cyprus—Gul and Erdogan are desperately trying to exploit every opportunity to prop up their country’s image and gain support from their constituency at home before next month’s crucial local elections.
The newspaper Sabah headlined its article on Obama’s Feb. 16 phone calls as “Double Praise for Ankara.” It claimed that the U.S. president told Gul: “We appreciate the leadership displayed by Turkey in the region. You are putting forth important efforts in Afghanistan and the Caucasus.” Obama then reportedly told Erdogan: “I want to state that your personal leadership is vital in the Middle East peace process.”
Moreover, Sabah reported that during the “25-30 minute” conversation, the two presidents discussed Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the European Union. Obama “emphasized the importance of Turkey’s strategic cooperation” and stated: “America will always approach Turkey’s concerns with understanding.” In response, Obama allegedly expressed the hope that his administration would “collaborate with Turkey on numerous issues, including achieving peace in the Middle East, bringing an end to the PKK terrorist organization, as well as relations with Armenia.”
According to the Anadolu news agency, Erdogan “highlighted Turkey’s sensitivities regarding Armenia and the Middle East, expressing the importance of the fair and impartial stance of the United States to secure that the relations between the two countries were not damaged.”
The Hurriyet newspaper provided additional details of the phone calls by reporting that “the issue of the 1915 incidents was high on the agenda of the Obama-Erdogan discussion.” Gul supposedly told Obama that an Armenian Genocide resolution “should not be put before Congress.” Erdogan was quoted as saying: “America’s fair and impartial approach is important in order to prevent any damage to bilateral relations.”
According to Hurriyet, “the U.S. president welcomed the recently restored dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, signaling that under the existing circumstances he would refrain from taking any steps that would harm these efforts.”
There are two serious problems with the foregoing Turkish reports: (1) Given the Turkish leaders’ self-interest in making exaggerated claims, coupled with the tendency of the Turkish media to publish rumors, no one knows if the reports of what was discussed during these phone calls are accurate. Such suspicions are validated by the fact that the White House, in its official announcement, did not make any reference to Armenia or the Armenian Genocide. (2) The Turkish leaders probably misjudged Obama’s intent in making these phone calls as well the implications of his words. During his long presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly spoke about bringing a new approach to both domestic and foreign policy. Rather than threats or harsh language, Obama prefers to use polite and respectful words to win over foreign heads of state. The new American president’s approach is to find common ground with Democrats and Republicans at home, as well as friends and foes overseas.
After reading the self-serving Turkish reports, most Armenians were displeased as they too misjudged Obama’s intent in making these phone calls. In my opinion, cordial or even friendly relations with the leaders of Turkey do not in any way detract from Obama’s commitment to affirm the Armenian Genocide.
On the contrary, having a warm personal relationship with Turkish leaders would make it easier for Obama to use gentle persuasion when necessary. He could explain to them that commemorative congressional resolutions were adopted in 1975 and 1984 and a presidential statement was issued by President Ronald Reagan without harming U.S.-Turkish relations. Consequently, acknowledging a genocide that took place almost a century ago should not detract from current friendly ties between the two countries. Indeed, opposing such an action is neither necessary nor wise!