ISTANBUL, Turkey — Barack Obama wrapped up his first European trip as president with a request of the world: Look past his nation’s stereotypes and flaws. “You will find a partner and a supporter and a friend in the United States of America,” he declared today.
“The world will be what you make of it,” Obama told college students in Turkey’s largest city. “You can choose to build new bridges instead of building new walls.”
Promising a “new chapter of American engagement” with the rest of the world, Obama said the United States needs to be more patient in its dealings. And he said the rest of the world needs a better sense “that change is possible so we don’t have to always be stuck with old arguments.”
The students formed a tight circle around the U.S. president, who slowly paced a sky-blue rug while answering their questions. He promised to end the town hall-style session before the Muslim call to prayer.
Obama rejected “stereotypes” about the United States, including that it has become selfish and crass.
“I’m here to tell you that that’s not the country that I know and it’s not the country that I love,” the president said. “America, like every other nation, has made mistakes and has its flaws. But for more than two centuries we have strived at great cost and sacrifice to form a more perfect union.”
He repeated his pledge to rebuild relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
“I am personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement,” Obama said. “We can’t afford to talk past one another, to focus only on our differences, or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us.”
Obama’s message was being warmly received by Arabs and Muslims. In an interview published today, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called his words “important” and “positive.”
The questions for Obama at the town-hall meeting were polite and rarely bracing, though one student asked whether there was any real difference between his White House and the Bush administration. Obama cautioned that while he had great differences with Bush over issues such as Iraq and climate change, it takes time to change a nation as big as the United States.
“Moving the ship of state is a slow process,” he said.
The Turkish stop capped an eight-day European trip that senior adviser David Axelrod called “enormously productive” — including an economic crisis summit in London and a NATO conclave in France and Germany.
Axelrod said specific benefits might be a while in coming. “You plant, you cultivate, you harvest,” he told reporters. “Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable.”
Picking up on his consultant’s theme later, Obama told the college students he sees nothing wrong with setting his sights high on goals such as mending relations with Iran and eliminating the world of nuclear options — two cornerstone issues of his trip.
“Some people say that maybe I’m being too idealistic,” Obama said. “But if we don’t try, if we don’t reach high, then we won’t make any progress.”
Obama’s final day in Turkey also featured a meeting with religious leaders and stops at top tourist sites in this city on the Bosporus that spans Europe and Asia. Accompanied by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he toured the Hagia Sophia museum and the Blue Mosque.
At the Blue Mosque, just across a square and manicured gardens from Hagia Sophia, the president padded, shoeless like his entire entourage in accordance with religious custom, across the carpeted mosque interior. All around were intricate stained-glass windows and a series of domes, thick columns and walls entirely covered in blue, red and white tile mosaic. Again, he appeared to speak little, as he was schooled in what he was seeing by a guide. He spent about 40 minutes at both places.
At his Istanbul hotel, Obama met with Istanbul’s grand mufti and its chief rabbi, as well as Turkey’s Armenian patriarch and Syrian Orthodox archbishop.
In many respects, Obama’s European trip was a continental listening tour.
He told the G-20 summit in London that global cooperation is the key to ending a crippling recession. And at the NATO summit in France and Germany, he said his new strategy for Afghanistan reflects extensive consultation.
In Ankara, Turkey’s capital, Obama told lawmakers their country can help ensure Muslims and the West listen to each other.