Barack Obama's keynote speech extending the hand of peace with the Muslim world has been relocated from Indonesia, to Istanbul, Turkey. His trip to Indonesia, where he spent some years of his childhood, has been postponed to November, to take place either before or after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore. The US president will take advantage of his visit to Ankara to deliver his historical speech in Istanbul on April 7.
While much has changed in Washington, some things are the same.
Five years ago, in June 2004, George W. Bush used Istanbul as the platform for unveiling his vision for the war on terror, the Muslim world and democracy. It was then that he coined the slogan for defining his never-fulfilled goal as being “A new and democratic Middle East”.
The event was restricted to a handpicked audience of professors and students from Istanbul University, while the Bosporus Straits seen behind President Bush were unnaturally calm without a single ship in sight. The US president's security detail made the Turks halt all marine traffic on one of the worlds' busiest waterways to keep the leader of the global war on terror safe from terrorist attack.
The security measures were draconian enough to rob the US president's speech of drama and color.
Ankara flirts with Tehran and buys Russian arms
Five years on, Bush's successor will be liable to pretty strict security arrangements too.
It is hard to find any information about his date of arrival or an itinerary of the events he is scheduled to attend.
Obama's address to the Muslim world will be part of the Second Alliance of Civilizations Forum, to be attended also by the host, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
American leaders' outreach attempts to the Muslim community of nations are ever prone to misunderstandings or outright rejection – in 2009 as much as in 2004. And the political terrain is as prickly as ever.
In 2003, Erdogan turned down Washington's request to transfer US troops through Turkey to invade Iraq from the north as well as the south.
Six years later, US-Turkish relations are just as strained if not more, even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Ankara last month. Now, Erdogan is willing to grant American troops one-way passage on their way out of Iraq, reminding Washington of his earlier rebuff.
Over the past year, Erdogan and Turkish president Abdullah Gul have made some blatantly anti-American moves, orienting Ankara closer to Tehran and Moscow (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 386 reported February 27, 2009: “Erdogan Steers Turkey Away from the West”).
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, the Gul visit occasioned a covert transaction for the purchase of Russian weapons systems, making Turkey the first NATO member to be armed with top-of-the line Russian hardware.
Cairo and Riyadh fear US realignment
Yet, as our Ankara and Middle East sources note, the Turkish prime minister is not averse to exploiting Obama's visit for his own political ends. His is leaning hard on the White House to have Syrian president Bashar Assad invited to the US president's address to Muslims, to lend his words a practical and political aspect. The drama of face-to-face encounter between the two presidents after the speech would impress Muslims worldwide of Obama's sincerity, compared with the pallid effect of the Bush speech in 2004.
No reply to Erdogan's proposal had been received from Washington by the time of our publication; its non-rejection thus far means the door is still open for this encounter to take place.
The two pro-Western conservative rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt find US maneuvers since Obama took office unsettling. King Abdullah and President Hosni Mubarak are perplexed and irked by the US president's choice of Istanbul for his landmark speech to Muslims; they fail to understand why he is heaping honors on his host, the Turkish prime minister, who openly lines up with America's rivals and harbors imperial dreams.
They feel that Washington should be discouraging the Turkish premier and cutting him down to size instead of lionizing him.
A senior source in Cairo said this week: “If it is America's wish to endorse the Turko-Iranian-Russian axis, we ought to be told so that we know exactly who we are dealing with.”