It was the early days of his presidency. Barack Obama was in Turkey as a part of his first overseas trip.
He addressed the Turkish Parliament and said: “Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message to the world. And my answer is simple: Evet (“Yes” in Turkish). Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together to overcome the challenges of our time.”
Seven years later we live in a completely different world than the one Obama sent a message to.
During his first term, Obama thought Turkey could be a model for Muslim countries because of its secular and democratic system.
And Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, was seen as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West.
As a part of Obama’s foreign policy, his master plan for the Middle East and Europe focused on Turkey.
However, things have changed dramatically since then. The United States and Turkey faced several challenges to their relationship and could not overcome them.
The “Arab Spring,” which began in late 2010, was a turning point. Obama welcomed it as a peaceful revolution by the people. And the hope was that some Arab countries wound end up with democratic regimes just like Turkey has.
It did not work.
The Arab Spring was a failure for both Turkey and America.
Last month Obama said the worst mistake of his presidency was the lack of planning in the aftermath of Moammar Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011 in Libya.
Meanwhile, Turkey was struggling with its own democracy. Turkey’s press freedom ranking fell from 98th out of 161 countries in 2006 to 151st out of 180 countries in 2016.
The Gezi Park protest in 2013 in Istanbul became a breaking point for Turkey and the United States.
Erdogan wanted an Ottoman-style shopping center built in the heart of the city. That plan caused the largest wave of protests in recent Turkish history. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
Two weeks later, police forces violently deported all protesters from the park. Eight people died during the revolt.
The Turkish government assumed this revolt was part of an international conspiracy, led by the U.S and Germany. The international press was also targeted by the Turkish government.
After Gezi Park, Erdogan claimed the imaginary threats were meant to “weaken Turkey” and came from the “interest rate lobby” and “international barons.”
Obama should have been dismayed by what happened in his “model” country. But he chose to keep working with his ally because there were bigger issues on the table such as Syria and Iraq.
The plans for Syria from both America and Turkey did not work. They underestimated President Bashar Assad’s power and Russia’s effect on Syria. The civil war turned into the worst refugee influx since World War II, and it triggered extremists such as the Islamic State.
America and Turkey today have different points of view on the future of Syria.
Obama was right a long time ago: Turkey is a critical American ally on European and Middle Eastern issues.
But his legacy in Turkey and the region is a mess. That’s not merely because of his decisions but because of Turkey’s actions as well.
Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host between April and September.