The success of US President Barack Obama's foreign policy hinges on Turkey's role, said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), during a seminar held at the US Embassy residence in Ankara on Thursday. Mead, one of the America's leading foreign policy experts, who has been described by The New York Times Book Review as “one of the country's liveliest thinkers about America's role in the world," told the select group in attendance that “Turkey has a role to play in whether or not President Obama's initiative [of reaching out to the Muslim world] will be seen as a success.”

Stressing that Turkey has influence in the region, Mead said Turkey has the ability to help President Obama appear as a successful leader in the eyes of his critics, “We can hope that the Turkish initiative in the region will complement and supplement what America is trying to do and lead to the kind of stable and peaceful Middle Eastern order that does not depend on a large American presence or high-profile American leadership.”

Calling Obama's foreign policy approach Jeffersonian -- a term coined after US President Thomas Jefferson, who advocated strict limits on foreign policy engagement by removing conflict points in global issues -- Mead said, “I would say that in this case Turkish national interests and the interests of Jeffersonians in the US are closely aligned.” “When Jeffersonians succeed, they make lasting changes. When they fail, they are generally replaced by someone who tries to undo what they have accomplished,” he added.

Mead, who describes himself as a lifelong Democrat, praised Obama's approach to foreign policy, saying Obama can leave a lasting legacy just like the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century or the containment policy adopted by the US during the Cold War. According to Mead, Obama's speeches in Ankara and Cairo, where he tried to reach out to the Muslim world, were very important. “He tried hard to reposition the US with Islam in order to remove conflict points and to find a common ground,” he underlined.

US needs Turkey more then ever

Mead went on saying that Turkey is one of a very small number of countries in the world that are more important to the US today than 10 or 20 years ago. He acknowledged, however, that Turkey and its neighborhood are a much more complicated place today than it was 20 years ago. “The US-Turkish cooperation is more important. We need each other more today than 20 years ago,” he emphasized.

The American scholar also noted that the US is absolutely committed to the idea that PKK [the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party] is a terrorist organization. “I am not aware of any shortcoming in US-Turkish cooperation on that issue,” he said. Mead praised the Turkish engagement in northern Iraq and said, “From a US viewpoint, the development of strong economic and political ties between Turkey and authorities in northern Iraq is a very positive sign for everybody concerned in order to bring stability in Iraq.”

On Iran's nuclear ambitions, Mead argued that Iranian nuclear weapons would make all existing problems in the region worse. “It will not help solve any of the problems we have in the Middle East. It will narrow the range of choices for any American president.” He noted that any nuclear test in Iran would have fallout in the US and may put the entire Obama foreign policy approach into question.

Turkey's foreign policy is commendable

Commenting on recent Turkish foreign policy engagement, the CFR scholar said Turkey has played a very constructive and positive role. “Turkey has continued to look for positive ways forward on the Armenian question and the Cyprus question. Turkey has showed commendable flexibility in dealing with the Kurdish situation in Iraq, for example. Turkey's approach to the EU strikes me as solid, mature, and sound in every way.” “Overall, Turkey remains very stable and very important, a solid citizen in this part of the world,” he added.

On Turkey's relations with Israel, Mead said he hopes Turkey would be able to retain Israel's trust to continue as a mediator between Israel and Syria. Calling the mediation role a “difficult vocation,” he made the point that Turkey's long-term strategic interests calls for it to maintain this kind of unique position in the region and in the world, as a place where everyone can come and feel that they will be understood. He criticized, however, the Israeli side for being premature. “In my opinion, criticism from Israel against Turkey is coming too fast,” he said.

On secularism, the American scholar suggested that Turkey needs to write its own chapter on relations between state and religion. Noting that there are different models in the West regulating the affairs of church and state, he provided examples from countries including Argentina, where the president until 1994 by law had to be Roman Catholic, as opposed to Great Britain, which prohibits royals from converting to Catholicism.

He said that though Turkey modeled its secularism on the French experience, which calls for a hostile attitude to all religions and public manifestations of religion, unlike France there was no hierarchal single religious entity in Turkey. “I would suggest looking at Western historical experiences, as there are many different ways of doing this,” he said.

‘Let historians sort out Armenian claims'

Mead also voiced strong opposition of any resolution recognizing Armenian killings during World War I as “genocide” in the US Congress. “I would be painfully surprised if a bill on that subject passed both houses and was signed by the president,” he said, adding that he would be opposed to such a resolution. He also expressed the opinion that the French law recognizing the Armenian genocide should be repealed as well.

He continued: “Some people describe me as a ‘working historian.' I believe in the separation of state and history. Legislative bodies should not be issuing historical declarations. A legislative body should not be saying this was genocide or was not genocide. Let historians work on that, research it, argue with each other about it, publish nasty articles repudiating other historians' claims. Let the general intelligence of the public over time reach their conclusion. These kind of issues need to be separated from diplomatic relations, which are complicated enough already.”

He criticized former US President George W. Bush's notion of exporting democracy and said, “The progress of democracy around the world probably depends more on domestic political forces in other countries.” He stressed that the US has been more hostile to Iran than to any other nation, yet there are few countries today that have as vibrant a democratic movement as Iran. “Countries move in their own way and respond to domestic issues,” he said, adding to that, “I think President Bush looks back at his support for democracy as something that was not as successful as he would have hoped.”