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Questions for President Obama from Hurriyet

Hurriyet, December 19, 2010

Q1:  You made your first official bilateral overseas visit to Turkey, as a recently inaugurated President.  After this visit, the partnership between US and Turkey extended despite some differences.  After a successful NATO Summit in Lisbon, particularly with Turkey given your productive talks with President Gul and recent call to PM Erdogan could you please elaborate the current relations between the two countries?

A1:   When I traveled to Turkey in April 2009 I emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Turkey partnership and said that Turkey and the United States must stand together – and work together – to overcome the challenges of our time.  The same is just as true today.  I had a good discussion with Prime Minister Erdogan last week, and together we reaffirmed the strong state of U.S.-Turkish relations.  Our partnership is resilient, and we agreed that the irresponsible acts of Wikileaks does not threaten it.  Turkey and the United States have been partners since 1927 following the birth of the Turkish Republic.  Turkish and American troops have served side by side from Korea to Kosovo to Kabul.   We also have a robust and engaged Turkish-American community that also helps bridge our two nations with shared cultural and family ties.  An engaged, active, and collaborative relationship with Turkey is important to both of our countries, to the region, and to the world. 

The United States and Turkey are bound together bilaterally not only by shared interests, but by a firm commitment to democracy and partnership.  Turkey has pursued an active foreign policy that has seen it interacting more intensively than ever with countries all across its neighborhood and beyond.  Turkey is an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, as it reaffirmed yet again at the Lisbon NATO Summit.  At the Summit, I thanked President Gul for his leadership in supporting the new NATO Strategic Concept and we agreed on the importance of NATO developing new capabilities to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.  The last decade has also seen Turkey achieve one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world, making it one of the twenty largest global economies.  I’ve made the G20 a key part of our economic interaction with the world, and supported its emergence as the premiere forum for international economic cooperation, precisely because I believe countries like Turkey must play a greater role in advancing our shared prosperity.

Turkey is also a country that shares America’s commitment to positive people-to-people engagement around the world – engagement that expands opportunity and prosperity, and builds bridges among different people. Earlier this year, I was pleased to host a Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington that brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs from scores of countries to focus on how to bolster entrepreneurship, while deepening engagement among the United States and Muslim communities. I am so pleased that Prime Minister Erdogan has agreed to host a follow-on Summit on Entrepreneurship, and believe that this partnership demonstrates our shared commitment to dialogue and progress.

This does not mean our two nations are not going to have-differences from time to time.  We do, and we speak frankly with each other about them, as good friends and partners should.  But our shared interests, our shared values, and our commitment to the long-term value of our partnership undergird our relationship even when we disagree.  Given the increasingly complex challenges the world faces, I believe that U.S.-Turkish cooperation is more important now than ever.

Q2: You’ve reiterated your support for Turkey’s European Union membership several times and you said the U.S. is convinced that a Turkey that meets conditions for entry would be beneficial to Europe. Do you see this membership possible in near future at a time when right-wing parties are on rise in even liberal European nations?  What should Turkey do?  What is the responsibility of EU leaders in this process?  How can you support the Turkey’s endeavor?

A2:  While I recognize the decision is not ours, the United States continues to strongly support Turkish accession to the EU and urges Turkey to continue the reforms necessary to complete the membership process, which is ongoing.  I remain convinced that a Turkey that meets EU membership criteria would be good for the EU, and that Turkey’s efforts to meet those criteria is good for Turkey.  As I said in Ankara during my visit in April 2009, Turkey is bound to Europe by more than the bridges over the Bosphorous.  Centuries of shared history, culture, and commerce bring Turkey and Europe together.  Europe gains by the diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith – it is not diminished by it.  And Turkish membership in the EU would broaden and strengthen Europe’s foundation once more.

Q3: After the Iran sanctions vote and the flotilla crisis with Israel, some circles in Washington are arguing that the axis of Turkey’s foreign policy has been shifted toward Middle East from the Western world.  Could you please comment on this debate?

 A3:  Turkey is a close ally and strategic partner.  It has a dynamic foreign policy and is playing a more active role in the region.  I recognize this important emerging role for Turkey, and it is consistent with the strengthening of our relationship that I have pursued with President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan because together we can do more to address the common challenges we face.   Our bilateral and multilateral agenda with Turkey spans a range of issues, including stability and security in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, trade and investment, and counterterrorism. 

As with our other close allies and friends, we will sometimes disagree, as was the case on the vote on Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council.  My administration has been frank in acknowledging those differences.  Notwithstanding our differences about tactics, I firmly believe Turkey shares the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and strengthening the international non-proliferation regime.  I know that Turkey, despite its vote, intends like all UN states to fully implement UNSCR 1929, and to strengthen the cause of non-proliferation and the work toward a world without nuclear weapons. 

Since taking office, I’ve made it clear that the United States was prepared to begin a new chapter of engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  We offered the Iranian government a clear choice.  It could fulfill its international obligations and realize greater security, deeper economic and political integration with the world, and a better future for all Iranians.  Or it could continue to flout its responsibilities and face even more pressure and isolation.  I remain committed to a diplomatic resolution to this issue.  We believe Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy, but with that right comes profound responsibilities. 

Iran, however, has continued its illicit nuclear activities and has not been able to convince the international community and the IAEA that its program is strictly for peaceful purposes.  That’s why a broader and deeper community of nations has emerged to hold the Iranian government to account for its failure to meet its obligations.  We and our international partners are going to make sure that sanctions are vigorously enforced. 

It is up to Iran to negotiate seriously and demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.  Iran has an opportunity to do that in the P5+1 talks in Turkey in January.  There are ways we can move forward, but all parties must be prepared to take constructive approaches.

Q4: What will be the role of NATO’s missile shield in Turkey?  What are your expectations from Turkey?  And how did you overcome the concerns of the Turkish Government on this project during the NATO Summit?  Will the NATO system be able to be integrated with Turkey's own missile defense system?

A4:  At the NATO Summit in Lisbon, leaders decided that the Alliance should protect its territory and populations from the threat of ballistic missiles. This historic decision was taken after extensive discussion with all Allies, including Turkey.  The system is a defensive capability, a response to the proliferation of ballistic missiles on the part of countries or non-state actors that could threaten Allies now or in the future, and is not directed at any particular country.  The Alliance is still deciding how this decision will be implemented and how the contributions of individual Allies will be integrated to best protect us.  We have a lot of work to do together in 2011, and in 2012 I will be proud to host the next NATO Summit in the United States.

Q5: The Turkish government is very happy for the cooperation with the U.S. Administration in struggle against PKK.  But they want still more support from the U.S. side.  How can you help Turkey on this issue?  And how do you evaluate the Kurdish opening of the Turkish Government?

A5:  The PKK, an organization we have designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, is a threat to the stability of the region.  The United States supports the efforts of our Turkish and Iraqi allies to confront this problem.  Turkey, like any country, has the right to defend itself against terrorists. 

For our part, the United States has worked to criminalize the PKK’s sources of material support by designating the PKK a Foreign Terrorist Organization and a significant narcotics trafficker.  We have been providing support for Turkish military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq.  We have worked with our European allies to fight the PKK’s facilitation efforts – fundraising, money-laundering and the like, through illegal activities in Europe.  We are pleased to see that European governments are bringing criminal cases against these front activities. 

We have also underscored that the solution to the PKK is not military alone, but must be in tandem with efforts to improve the human rights and standards of living of all of Turkey's citizens.  We welcome steps such as the “National Unity Project” initiative to improve the human rights and economic situation for Kurds and other groups within Turkey.  The United States welcomed the launch last year of public and private broadcasting in Kurdish and other languages, opening language departments in universities that include Kurdish and other languages, and recent amendments to Anti-Terror laws.  These are the types of steps that, if sustained and broadened over time, will diminish the appeal and strength of the PKK.

Q6: The U.S. State Department released the annual International Religious Freedom Report  recently.  According to the report, the constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, constitutional provisions regarding the integrity and existence of the secular state restrict these rights.  What do you think about the religious freedom issue in Turkey?

A6:  With continued reform, I believe Turkey can offer an influential example of how a successful, secular Muslim-majority democracy can protect the rights of all its citizens equally, including religious and ethnic minorities and members of other ethnic and other groups.  We talk with the Turkish government on a full range of religious freedom concerns of official minorities and other groups, including majority Sunnis, and encourage additional reforms to ensure basic rights to all of Turkey's citizens.  Just as we respect the deep faith and dynamism of so many Muslims within Turkey, I have publicly called on the Government of Turkey to reopen Halki Seminary, including in my April 2009 speech to the Turkish Parliament, as a symbol of commitment to religious freedom.  The United States recognizes the ecumenical status of the Patriarchate, which for seventeen centuries has been a part of the rich tradition of religious diversity in Turkey and to whom millions of Americans and others around the world look for spiritual guidance. 

Q7: The crisis between Turkey and Israel is still going on.  What should two countries do to overcome this diffucult period.  The Turks know that the U.S. played an important and constructive role during the flotilla crisis in May, but what can you do more to solve the problems between the two as an ally of both of them?

A7:  Turkey and Israel are both key allies of the United States.  The relationship between them has been a source of regional stability, and one we have encouraged.  I support Turkey's and Israel’s efforts to find an acceptable way forward, and I encourage both nations to do everything they can to repair their relations.  In the meantime, I applaud Prime Minister Erdogan’s generous decision to send Turkish aircraft to assist the Israeli Government in battling the horrific fires in that country.

The United States remains deeply concerned by the suffering of civilians in Gaza and continues to engage with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, UN humanitarian agencies, and NGOs to expand the scope and type of goods allowed into Gaza to address the full range of the population’s humanitarian and recovery needs, while keeping in mind the Government of Israel’s legitimate security concerns.