Barack Obama’s Ankara speech contained many interesting ideas that are worth reviewing. Of course, the most important feature of the speech was that an American president was giving it at all. In other words, relations with both Turkey and the Muslim world have been so dismal that just being there provided a tremendous amount of drama. Then of course, there was the right wing smear campaign waged against Obama during the campaign in which hatemongers like Daniel Pipes and others accused the candidate of being Muslim (or in Pipes’ case, of being a Muslim “apostate”). Thus the Ankara speech seemed a throwing off of shackles both for the U.S. and its relations with the Muslim world, and this president and his right wing detractors.
In some ways, I was struck in this speech by the ease with which the president addressed questions that as recently as a year ago were tying our entire nation in knots.
In encouraging the Turks to pursue the path of democracy and political reform that is gradually leading them toward entry into the European Union, Obama served up a lesson from our recent political past:
…Democracies cannot be static — they must move forward. Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state…An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.
I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States. But it is precisely that capacity to change that enriches our countries…This work is never over. That’s why, in the United States, we recently ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. That’s why we prohibited — without exception or equivocation — the use of torture. All of us have to change. And sometimes change is hard.
You have to admire the forthrightness with which Obama addresses America’s sins and weaknesses along with his unwillingness to become mired in it. It’s as if merely acknowledging it publicly is a redemptive act that allows everyone, whether victim or perpetrator to move on.
The N.Y. Times noted the implict rebuke to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign policy ‘czar,’ who recently renounced Israel’s commitment to the Annapolis peace process. What I like about this passage is Obama’s cool, dignified, and insistent reaffirmation of all the values Lieberman and Netanyahu resent and reject. It’s as if the power of the U.S. leader’s words could wipe away all the negativity exemplified by Lieberman:
Let me be clear: The United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of goodwill around the world. That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the road map and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as President of the United States.
We know the road ahead will be difficult. Both Israelis and Palestinians must take steps that are necessary to build confidence and trust. Both Israelis and Palestinians, both must live up to the commitments they have made. Both must overcome longstanding passions and the politics of the moment to make progress towards a secure and lasting peace.
The United States and Turkey can help the Palestinians and Israelis make this journey. Like the United States, Turkey has been a friend and partner in Israel’s quest for security. And like the United States, you seek a future of opportunity and statehood for the Palestinians. So now, working together, we must not give into pessimism and mistrust. We must pursue every opportunity for progress, as you’ve done by supporting negotiations between Syria and Israel. We must extend a hand to those Palestinians who are in need, while helping them strengthen their own institutions. We must reject the use of terror, and recognize that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate.
Another important element here is Obama’s explicit praise for the peacemaking role Turkey played between Israel and Syria. Unfortunately, Ehud Olmert trashed this relationship by waging the Gaza war just days before a potential announcement of the opening of direct negotiations between the parties (thus angering Turkey’s prime minister). Obama is putting Netanyahu on notice that he believes the Syria track and Turkish mediation is an avenue worth pursuing. It will be up to the new Israeli prime minister to try to weasle out of it if he dares.
The heart of the speech is in this passage where, with a few words, Obama wipes away seven years of hostility, suspicion and mistrust between the U.S. and the Muslim world. It is truly amazing the power of the bully pulpit wielded by a president. Obama here uses it masterfully to tell the world there’s a new hand at our nation’s wheel of state and that a new day is dawning in relations between this country and Muslim nations like Turkey:
I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. (Applause.) In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.
I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them. (Applause.)
Above all, above all we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future…In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship to all people.
…There’s some who must be met by force, they will not compromise. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism. The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together.
And if you were Turkish how could you not be seduced by the beauty of these words?
Turkey’s greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide — this is where they come together. (Applause.) In the beauty of your culture. In the richness of your history. In the strength of your democracy. In your hopes for tomorrow.
All in all a masterful performance. Can anyone doubt that this man potentially has a rendezvous with presidential greatness? Let anyone who doubts that Obama could play an instrumental in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict take notice. This man means business. I wish him well and hope that those who oppose him, whether their name be Lieberman or Netanyahu or Pipes or Klein, run and hide.