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President Obama’s Speech to the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009

American Hellenic Institute Statement on

 President Obama’s Speech to the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009

April 9, 2009

Prior to President Obama’s visit to Turkey, the American Hellenic Institute (AHI) wrote to the President on March 26, 2009 in order to bring to his attention the core issues of concern to the Greek American community as he prepared to embark on his trip.  The background and arguments presented were based in support of the rule of law, U.S. laws, international law and in the best interests of the United States.

Ever since President Obama was elected in November and up until the time of his inauguration, there were several reports issued from think-tanks in Washington, D.C.  They advocate that one of the top priorities for President Obama is to engage Turkey in order to repair the “strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey…”  One of the reports goes on to say “…this vital alliance has suffered through serious strains in recent years, mostly due to ill will generated by the 2003 Iraq War.  Today, this neglected alliance is in critical need of repair.”  Further, the report called on the new President to make “…Turkey one of the first stops on [the President’s] first European trip…such a visit to Turkey [should be made] within the context of a European as opposed to a Middle Eastern trip to demonstrate that the United States considers Turkish membership in the EU and stronger ties to the West to be an important strategic objective.”

The report, which is titled “The Neglected Alliance – Restoring U.S.-Turkish Relations to Meet 21st Century Challenges” (December 2008) was produced by the Center for American Progress whose President and CEO is John D. Podesta.  This is the same John Podesta who was the Head of President Obama’s transition team and the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

The other reports had a similar message.

The impact of the foreign policy centered Washington think-tank establishment should never be underestimated as to their ability to influence and set forth the foreign policy agenda of any administration.

However, many times, these reports have their own hidden agenda and do not always serve to guide our policy makers in what’s in the best interest of the United States.

We understand that the United States, as a major world power, has a diverse agenda and we don’t view his trip to Turkey within the context of a “zero sum game,” just because he didn’t also visit Greece.  However, we look forward to monitoring future developments as to when the President might see it appropriate to visit Greece and if there are any invitations lurking in the horizon for Prime Minister Karamanlis and President Christofias to visit the United States.

The President’s agenda in Turkey was to go there in order to seek support for Afghanistan and Iran, and for an exit corridor for our U.S. troops out of Iraq.  Within this context he also looked to try and heal the strain in U.S. relations with Turkey.

However, this trip also provided the president with a great opportunity to send a strong message to Turkey as it relates to stability and U.S. interests in the region within the context of outstanding issues relating to Greece and Cyprus.

How did he do?

We commend him for raising two very important issues, that of Cyprus and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Regarding the Patriarchate he said:

“Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthen the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.  An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”

We would have appreciated a more definitive comment along the lines of his pre-campaign statement and not one that implies it will be a good “step” to re-open Halki. In his October 2008 statement, he said:

“[He was] one of 73 Senators who signed a letter to President Bush in 2006 urging him to press Turkey to restore the full rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church in Istanbul. [And he had sent] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a personal letter on the same matter. [He  called on] Turkey to respect the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rights and freedoms, including its property rights.  Turkey should allow the reopening of the Patriarchate’s school of theology on Halki Island and guarantee the right to train clergy of all nationalities, not just Turkish nationals.”

As pointed out by this statement, there are a number of serious issues facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not just Halki.  He should have also called on Turkey to address them as well. Turkey should immediately:

  • recognize the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its nonpolitical religious mission;
  • ensure the continued maintenance of the institution’s physical security needs, as provided for under Turkish and international law, including the Treaty of Lausanne, the 1968 Protocol, the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Charter of Paris;
  • provide for the proper protection and safety of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarchate personnel;
  • reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Patriarchal School of Theology;” and
  • return 7,000 plus church properties illegally taken.

We hope that the President addressed these issues during his private meetings with the Turkish leaders.

Further, it would have sent a stronger message to Turkey if he had visited with the Ecumenical Patriarch at the Patriarchate itself rather than in his hotel.  We are certain that if he was in Rome, the President would not have had the Pope visit him in his hotel.  We must remember that the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of close to 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world, including approximately 5 million in the United States!

Regarding Cyprus he said:

“Advancing peace also includes the disputes that persist in the Eastern Mediterranean.  And here there’s a cause for hope. The two Cypriot leaders have an opportunity through their commitment to negotiations under the United Nations Good Offices Mission.  The United States is willing to offer all the help sought by the parties as they work towards a just and lasting settlement that reunifies Cyprus into a bizonal and bicommunal federation.”

Here again, we commend the President for raising these issues within the context of a “bizonal and bicommunal federation.”

However, he equates President Demetrios Christofias, who is internationally recognized as the President of the Republic of Cyprus, except by Turkey, with that of the leader of the 18% Turkish Cypriot minorit, Mehmet Ali Talat, when he refers to both as being the “two Cypriot leaders.”

And it is important to note that the president did not make any mention of the continuing ongoing Turkish occupation on Cyprus the way he did in his October 2008 campaign statement.  At that time he said in part:

“…A negotiated political settlement on Cyprus would end the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus and repair the island’s tragic division while paving the way to prosperity and peace throughout the entire region.”

It would have been extremely useful to the negotiations process had he reiterated this in his speech.

Further, if the United States is truly “willing to offer all the help sought by the parties as they work towards a just and lasting settlement that reunifies Cyprus” it can begin by calling on Turkey to:

  • demilitarize Cyprus now;
  • withdraw its 43,000 occupation troops illegally in Cyprus (Turkey’s troops can be more useful if deployed in Afghanistan);
  • return to Turkey the 180,000 illegal settlers/colonists from Turkey in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949;
  • tear down the green line barbed-wire fence across the face of Cyprus which, together with Turkey’s 40,000 occupation forces, is the real cause of the alleged isolation of the Turkish Cypriots in the occupied northern part of Cyprus; and
  • warn Turkish leaders not to manipulate the current talks or restrict Mr. Talat at the bargaining table.

Advocating these policy decisions would underscore support for the rule of law and respect for international law.  This would illustrate that the United States truly wishes to advance the cause of solving the 35-year-old Cyprus problem. Continuing former failed policies that promote a double standard in applying the rule of law to Turkey and the continuing appeasement of Turkey does not serve U.S. interests.

Finally, Turkey continues to create serious problems in the Aegean by almost on a daily basis violating Greece’s territorial integrity.  This is a very important issue as it also relates to the stability of the region and by extension U.S. interests there.  Yet President Obama did not refer to this issue or make any reference to the importance of continuing to advance the cause of strengthening Turkish relations with Greece-two NATO allies.

While we understand that the President’s main focus in Turkey was to receive support for our military operations in Afghanistan and other outstanding issues referred to earlier, there are no indications that would prove that the Turks promised us anything.

And what’s worse, the President, in an effort to appease Turkey, referred to Turkey as being a “…resolute ally and a responsible partner in transatlantic and European institutions.”  How?  By occupying a European Union country?  By continuing to threaten Greece, a NATO ally, with war (casus belli) and promote claims that are unfounded and devoid of any legal basis? By not allowing our soldiers to advance into northern Iraq during the Iraqi War unless we gave them 32 billion dollars?  We could continue.

Be that is it may, it is still appreciated that the President at least raised a number of our core issues in a public setting and that he did meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch. For this, we once again commend and thank him.

However, we now look forward to the President following through and to monitor Turkey to see if she will heed his suggestions.

To do this, would give further sustenance to the President’s commitment to advancing his Administration’s agenda within the rule of law and transparency, not only at home but abroad.

The AHI makes these comments and recommendations for the successful resolution of the above mentioned issues as embodied within the fundamental principles of democracy and founded on the rule of law as in the best interests of the United States.


The American Hellenic Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and also within the American Hellenic community.