Erdoğan and Obama’s phone chats reveal Turkey’s ascent

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met two months ago in New York, where they discussed political developments in the Middle East and Palestine’s UN full member bid.

October 16, 2011, Sunday/ 14:58:00

International relations experts agree the United States and Turkey’s well-established alliance and Turkey’s ascent in the international arena explain why President Barack Obama has chatted with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan more than almost any other world leader despite fissures in a number of policy areas and differences between the two leaders’ governing styles.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Obama has placed more calls to Erdoğan than to any other world leader this year next to British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“It is remarkable to hear how often they speak,” former New York Times bureau chief in İstanbul Stephen Kinzer told Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview. “I think that it’s due above all not to a personal relationship between the two but to Obama’s realization of the role that Turkey has come to play in the region and in the wider world. He understands what Turkey has become, and I think he understands Turkey’s potential to project into other Muslim countries ideals the West would like to see projected but cannot do itself,” Kinzer explained.

Center for Strategic Research (SAM) Chairman Bülent Aras said the frequent communication between the two leaders makes perfect sense. “If you look at the US, it is one of the most involved nations in world politics, but the Atlantic is a literal gulf between the Western nation and Eurasia. Turkey, on the other hand, is very active in this region because of its location. In this age of global economic and political crises, it makes sense that Turkey is a perfect ally for the US. In fact, they are now more in need of each other. That’s why there is such a high level of political dialogue.”

Even Henry Kissinger, who served as national security advisor and then secretary of state for both the Nixon and Ford administrations, noted Turkey’s expanding role in the international arena last Thursday during a conference in İstanbul. “Turkey’s influence is growing at a time that the US is withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, plus Libya is opening up -- so Turkey can play a significant role,” The Wall Street Journal reported Kissinger as commenting.

Obama and Erdoğan: ‘the odd couple’

International relations experts agreed that the two world leaders’ well-founded relationship is interesting considering their clear differences on the surface.

David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, called Erdoğan and Obama’s governing styles “diametrically opposite.”

“Obama is a consensus-builder, while Erdoğan is emotional and able to act singularly based on conditions,” Phillips, who is also a fellow at Harvard University’s Project on the Future of Diplomacy, said in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.

Kinzer agreed, arguing that the two leaders often get themselves in a bind because of their temperaments: “Erdoğan is decisive to the point of arrogance, while Obama is weak to the point of appeasement and eternal compromise.” While Obama is understated to the point that it outrages many of his supporters, Erdoğan’s prickly sense of honor and feisty temper have presented problems both at home and in international affairs, Kinzer argued.

But Sunday’s Zaman Washington correspondent Ali H. Aslan and adviser to the prime minister İbrahim Kalın argued that Erdoğan and Obama are more similar than some may think.

Kalın, analyzing their upbringing and understanding of the world, found the two leaders have learned the importance for a world leader to personify a global perspective and vision.

Obama’s generally broad perspective is rooted in the multicultural environment in which he was brought up, Kalın argued. “He also has a sense of historic responsibility in the sense that the world has become so interdependent that, in his actions as the president of a superpower, he can’t turn a blind eye to world events,” he said.

Erdoğan, witnessing the consequences and the fall of the black-and-white Cold War era, similarly developed a broader perspective as the mayor of İstanbul. Erdoğan has brought this mindset to the fore as prime minister, Kalın argued, “both anchoring himself in Turkey and seeking to contribute to regional and global peace and security.” As Turkey realizes its great potential and takes up the mantle of leader in the region, Kalın stated that Erdoğan learned that selfishness and a short-term mentality have no place in national and global politics.

According to Aslan, the two politicians have something else in common -- namely their unexpected rise to the highest office in their countries. “It was historic and unexpected for many Americans that a black man would enter the White House, and that a man of the people like Erdoğan could become prime minister of Turkey was similarly surprising,” he said.

Both experts argued that these common backgrounds and principles have forged an understanding and respect between the two leaders that has helped US-Turkey relations transcend specific issues.

Dr. Joshua Walker, assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, described the two leaders’ steady alliance. “Obama and Erdoğan are very different leaders with differing approaches and styles, yet they have been able to develop a crucial relationship built on pragmatism and trust.”

One such road bump in the two countries’ relations has been the row between Israel and Turkey that began last year when Israel attacked a Turkish ship that was part of an international humanitarian aid flotilla. During Erdoğan’s Arab Spring tour, he blasted Israel and called for Palestine’s full membership as a UN member.

Phillips argues that the conflict between its two allies has been particularly trying the US government’s patience. “There is nothing wrong with Erdoğan’s championing the Palestinian cause, but it is not necessary to go out of his way when he wants to pick a fight with Israel. This confrontational approach puts the US in an awkward position with two important allies and runs the risk of an incident that could spiral out of control.”

But according to Aslan, Obama is not exactly happy with Israel, either. “They [the Obama administration] have continuously encouraged Israel to fulfill Turkey’s conditions, but they have not been able to convince the [Israeli] administration. Obama has had a hard time working with the current Israeli leadership,” he said.

Obama-Erdoğan friendship – asset or liability in 2012 election?

Obama’s frequently logged calls to Erdoğan, whom Kinzer jokingly referred to as “Obama’s second best friend,” have not gone unnoticed by the US leader’s opposition, Kinzer remarked. Plus, while foreign policy does not tend to play a major role in US elections, the former NYT İstanbul bureau chief said Israel is one issue that always seems to pop up. “I suspect that among all of the accusations Obama’s opposition will throw at him will be the accusation that he is friendly with a country and a leader who is not a cheerleader for Israel,” Kinzer speculated.

But Aslan disagreed, arguing that Turkey is not usually a major issue in elections. “We just had the Republican debate, and there was not much reference to Turkey. Some may criticize Obama in the coming months for his relationship with Turkey while it is fighting with Israel, but everything depends on future developments,” he said.

Erdoğan-Obama add more than subtract

Both world leaders have added more than they have subtracted from the larger scale US-Turkish relationship, experts agreed.

While Dr. Walker, who is also a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, called the US-Turkish relationship far more complicated than just between two leaders, he added that Erdoğan and Obama have brought the two countries as close as they can. “They have a similar understanding of the world and a flexible pragmatism that guides their policies and relationships. Both leaders realize that their countries and people are better off with than without each other,” Walker said.

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