Making Plans for Obama's Trip to Turkey Next Month

Shaping an agenda for the visit to a majority Muslim nation that is a close U.S. ally.

By + More

Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Turkey—his first as president to a majority Muslim nation—is expected to touch heavily on themes of partnership with the NATO ally and like-minded views on key security issues rather than the disagreements that plagued U.S.-Turkish relations during the Bush administration.

A senior Turkish foreign policy official, Ahmet Davutoglu, is in Washington to help prepare for the April 6-7 visit. "Our policies are almost identical on all issues," he says.

Obama is expected to stop both in the capital, Ankara, and in Istanbul.

Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy adviser to Turkey's prime minister, said that his consultations with the State Department, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and White House National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones—a meeting that ran longer than expected this morning—had gone well, prompting him to add, "There is no historical baggage" in the Turkish-U.S. relationship.

That signals Ankara's desire to set aside past tensions with Washington over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (which Turkey advised against), U.S. Middle East policy, and interest inside the United States in formally recognizing the mass deaths of Armenians early in the past century as a genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks.

Davutoglu conceded, though, that since 2005 there has been a "problem of image perception of the United States inside Turkey." Opinion polls in Turkey have shown dramatically low favorability ratings for the United States in recent years.

Obama is making U.S. outreach to the Muslim world a key foreign policy goal, in part to repair damage done during the Bush years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton included a stop in Turkey on her first swing through Europe. In Turkey, she hailed the country's democracy and secular Constitution as well as its embrace of religious freedom and free markets. The upcoming Obama visit, at the end of his first trip to Europe as president, is "a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey."

Turkey's backing is needed, or at least helpful, in the reconstruction of Iraq and in the withdrawal over time of American soldiers and military equipment. Turkey says it wants to help with both, and its OK is needed to use the U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, for troop and materiel transit.

Turkey has also been an important player in NATO forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And as a country with generally friendly and full relations with Israel, it played a key role in organizing recent indirect talks between Israel and Syria. Davutoglu said Turkey is ready to continue with the effort if the next Israeli government—now being formed under conservative Likud leadership—wants to. He said five rounds of the talks had "achieved a lot."

On Iran, another key security issue in which Turkey has a stake, Ankara is urging Iran to comply with all of its obligations for running a transparent nuclear program as laid out by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. However, Davutoglu cautioned that Turkey opposed any efforts to restrict energy trade in the region—a possible tactic in any stronger, future efforts to pressure Iran to suspend its nuclear activities.

The Turkish official sought to play down the issue of Obama's own stance on the question of past genocide. As a candidate, Obama clearly stated that he believes "the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view but rather a widely documented fact." However, expressing the same as president could renew tensions with Turkey and complicate getting Ankara's help on issues that Obama says are central to his foreign policy.

The Turks seem determined to avoid the Armenian issue and to welcome Obama's visit as a fresh start. "I am sure it will be a very successful visit," Davutoglu predicted. "Nothing can shatter this successful visit."