[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
The Turkish Republic has had eleven presidents so far. If I had to choose one of them as my favorite, it is only the eighth and the eleventh among whom I would probably remain undecided: The late Turgut Özal, and the current Abdullah Gül.
That’s why I was happy to receive a call from Mr. Gül’s office early last week, asking me if I would like to join his Lisbon trip.
It has become a custom in recent years for both the president and the prime minister to take journalists with them on their travels – and not necessarily journalists who support their policies. The most interesting part of such “embedded” flights is often the flight itself, for that is when the president or the PM finds time to chat with the reporters and columnists on board. Hence come headlines such as “a statement made on the plane.”
So, I happily said “yes” to the offer and flew to Ankara on Thursday night to board “ANA,” the Turkish version of the United States’ Air Force One, next morning. The plane had two main areas: the president’s chamber in the front and the layman’s area at the back. Even in the latter, I must say, the service was splendid.
At some point during the flight, the president’s Media Advisor Ahmet Sever said, “now you can come” to me and the other journalists onboard, including Metehan Demir from Hürriyet, Fikret Bila from Milliyet, Cengiz Çandar from Radikal and Abdülmamid Bilici from Zaman.
Then we went to the president’s small, oval-shaped room. He greeted us warmly and, after some small talk, got into the real issue: the NATO summit in Lisbon, to which we were heading. Gül was confident about the principles Turkey would stand for, but also a little cautious about how they would be met. Ankara was willing to be a part of the missile defense system that NATO would build but did not want this to be specifically related to any particular county or region and thus jeopardize the “zero problems with neighbors” policy. The threat, Gül said, should simply be “ballistic missiles, whoever has them now, or whoever might have them in the future.”
Once we landed in Lisbon, the president went to his meetings with world leaders, and we went to join the media army outside. It was ten hours later that we saw him again, in a conference room at the hotel where we were all staying. He walked in, grabbed a cookie, sat down, loosened his tie, and, smiling, said: “What makes these NATO meetings this interesting is really us, Turkey.” He was obviously happy with his day.
What happed, apparently, was that Turkey and France disagreed strongly on two key issues: whether Iran should be noted as a potential threat for NATO and whether Turkey should accept the Greek-run Republic of Cyprus as a partner in the alliance. On both issues, it seems, the Turkish theses beat those of the French. “Thank God, things worked out fine,” Gül said. “Other NATO leaders agreed with us.”
He especially spoke highly of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for defending Turkey’s positions. He also spoke favorably of U.S. President Barack Obama. “We want his policies to succeed,” Gül said. “We want him to be strong in Washington.”
The next day, we journalists chatted with Gül again on the flight back to Ankara. This time we asked questions about domestic politics, in particular the Kurdish issue. As he only spoke off-the-record, I can only say this: I, once again, saw that Gül really understands this acute problem and has the right vision to work for its solution. He realizes that this is mainly a hearts-and-minds issue, rather than exclusively a security threat.
Gül has a similar vision for Afghanistan as well – one he hopes NATO allies will pay more attention to. “Both the American and the Turkish forces are working in Wardak province,” he said, contrasting the approaches of the two armies. “The first thing the Americans built there was a prison. The first thing we built was a cold storage house, vital for agriculture in the region.”
2112 or 2114
All in all, I think it is fortunate that Turkey has a president like Gül. Many outside observers would agree he is a reasoned, balanced, and reliable statesman. When you spend time with him you realize he is modest, yet self-confident and practical, yet principled.
As a former academic who studied in the United Kingdom, he also knows the world well and understands the global language. In domestic politics, he is a fair leader who has won the respect of even some of the ultra-secularists who once opposed him for his religiosity – and that of his wife, Hayrünnisa Gül, Turkey’s first veiled first lady.
My only concern is that Turkey might lose Gül soon. In fact, he was elected by the parliament in 2007 to serve for seven years. But then came a constitutional amendment that made the presidency a popularly elected office and reduced its term to five years. So now it is legally unclear whether Gül’s presidency will end in 2112 or 2114.
The latter would be my wish. Otherwise, I hope Gül will run for a second term. I am sure he will find many millions of supporters – including my humble self.