As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, April 06, 2009

Obama In Ankara

As promised, Barack Obama gave an address in a Muslim capital within the first 100 days of his Presidency. Speaking to the Turkish Parliament, he praised the Turkish people (including shout-outs to basketballers Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur) and argued for strong bilateral relations. The most talked-about portion of the speech will probably be the part where Obama insists that the West is not at war with Islam.

I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.

But I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim work cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better - including my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country - I know, because I am one of them.

Above all, we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future. We want to help more children get the education that they need to succeed. We want to promote health care in places where people are vulnerable. We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people. 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.

Obama delivered that bit with sensitivity and the exact right point of view, seeking to align the Muslim world on the same side as the West against the perversion of their faith. And he pushed for a two-state solution in the Middle East, engagement with Iran, and the denial of safe havens for terrorism in Iraq and Af-Pak, and sought Turkish aid in those efforts. All fine and good.

But on the issue of Turkey's own past, Obama backslid from his past rhetoric on the subject and approached with more typical caution. It was smart to couch this in the context of Turkey's admission to the EU, and the political reforms necessary for that accomplishment. But Obama certainly pulled his punch.

Another issue that confronts all democracies as they move to the future is how we deal with the past. The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods. Facing the Washington monument that I spoke of is a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed those who were enslaved even after Washington led our Revolution. And our country still struggles with the legacy of our past treatment of Native Americans.

Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.

We have already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. That is why the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

The Turkish people know that Obama has called the Turkish repression of Armenians a genocide, and that's what he's referring to when he discusses "my views." He tries here to disassociate from the debate and let the Turks and the Armenians move forward with dialogue. But we have commitments to the truth in discussing human rights, and should not sidestep them. Obviously, remaining mute has not resolved this tragedy over close to 100 years. Matthew Yglesias has some good thoughts on the need for outside forces pushing Obama to the truth on this subject, and I think there's a direct parallel to world leaders pushing the Turks.

Realistically, long-run international humanitarian considerations just aren’t going to be the controlling priority of the United States government. “Pragmatic” stuff like what Obama did in his speech is bound to happen and it doesn’t really matter who you make senior director of what on the National Security Council. It’s important, however, to have strong voices in civil society capable of making the point that this kind of pragmatism, and the also-inevitable pragmatism that will surround discussion of China human rights issues, is really pretty awful. I’m not even sure it’s the wrong choice for the president to make—Turkey is an important ally and the United States has nothing to gain from poking a stick in their eye. But I’m very glad that as a private citizen, rather than a government official, I don’t need to make that choice. And I’d sort of rather that our Pulitzer Prize winning authors (he's talking about genocide expert Samantha Power -ed.) were in my position rather than in the position of being on the inevitably-losing side of internal arguments about this sort of thing.

Exactly. And in the same way, it's pragmatic for the Turks to deny the acts of their ancestors in Armenia, but strong voices in the international community ought to make the right noises on the side of truth. Otherwise, there is never a "good time" to bring up such things and the past just gets buried in the most corrosive way possible.

...Obama took a question on this at a press avail today and reiterated his views:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. As a U.S. senator you stood with the Armenian-American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide and you also supported the passage of the Armenian genocide resolution. You said, as President you would recognize the genocide. And my question for you is, have you changed your view, and did you ask President Gul to recognize the genocide by name?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed views. What I have been very encouraged by is news that under President Gul's leadership, you are seeing a series of negotiations, a process, in place between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of longstanding issues, including this one.

I want to be as encouraging as possible around those negotiations which are moving forward and could bear fruit very quickly very soon. And so as a consequence, what I want to do is not focus on my views right now but focus on the views of the Turkish and the Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage them.

And so what I told the President was I want to be as constructive as possible in moving these issues forward quickly. And my sense is, is that they are moving quickly. I don't want to, as the President of the United States, preempt any possible arrangements or announcements that might be made in the near future. I just want to say that we are going to be a partner in working through these issues in such a way that the most important parties, the Turks and the Armenians, are finally coming to terms in a constructive way.

Q So if I understand you correctly, your view hasn't changed, but you'll put in abeyance the issue of whether to use that word in the future?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: What I'd like to do is to encourage President Gul to move forward with what have been some very fruitful negotiations. And I'm not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having useful discussions.

Basically... I'm not saying the word, my views are the same, and hopefully the Armenians and the Turks can work it out and get me off the hook.

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