Combining statecraft with stagecraft, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have turned around US-Turkish relations. For most of the Bush administration's tenure, Washington had a strained relationship with Ankara, but Clinton's first visit to Turkey as President Barack Obama's secretary of state has Turkish officials feeling more optimistic about the future of bilateral relations.
"Her coming to Turkey is [like the] pressing of the reset button and starting with a clean slate. Turkey is ready for that. The last eight years have been troublesome," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of parliament and Deputy Chairman of External Affairs for Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The last few years have been dismal for Turkey-US relations and for America's image in Turkey. Turks were strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, while many also felt that the United States was not doing enough to deal with the presence of Kurdish guerillas that were using their bases in northern Iraq to attack Turkey. Many policymakers in Washington, meanwhile, never forgave Ankara for failing to pass a 2003 motion in parliament that would have allowed American troops to invade Iraq through Turkey.
Clinton and Turkish officials had significant issues to discuss during her one-day visit to the Turkish capital of Ankara on March 8, including the possible use by American troops on Turkish soil -- this time for withdrawing from Iraq -- and her announcement that Obama will make his own trip to Turkey in early April.
"We share a commitment to democracy, a secular constitution, respect for religious freedom, belief in a free market and a sense of global responsibility," Clinton said during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan. She added that Obama's upcoming visit is "a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey."
But the secretary of state had another important mission during her Turkish visit: to polish America's battered image in Turkey, where, according to a 2007 public opinion survey, only 9 percent of the population held a favorable view of the U.S., down from 52 percent in 2002.
In a departure from traditional diplomacy, Clinton sat down for a Saturday night interview on a popular Turkish television talk show. She proceeded to open up on prime time about everything from how she fell in love to her challenged sense of fashion. (Clinton did something similar during her recent trip to Indonesia, visiting the set of a youth-oriented television show).
"This is good for American public diplomacy. Whoever planned this did it well," says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "She is reducing the damage to the American image here in Turkey. I think Turks are ready to take a different look at America."
Public appearances in Turkey by American officials during the Bush administration tended to be few and far between. Former president George W. Bush's lone visit to Istanbul, for a NATO summit, saw him confined to a large security zone that turned a large part of downtown Istanbul into a ghost town.
Hosted by four women, the program, called Haydi Gel Bizimle Ol (Come and Join Us), is the Turkish version of the popular American talk show "The View." For an hour, Clinton smiled pleasantly while the hosts and members of the audience tossed her mostly softball questions. Asked by one of the hosts how she deals with life's difficulties, Clinton answered: "You know, family, faith, friends are the core of my life and I don't know anybody whose life is smooth sailing."
At a low budget hotel in the heart of Istanbul, night clerk Ali Demir, splitting his attention between Clinton's television appearance and a soccer game streaming live on his computer screen, said he liked the secretary of state's approach.
"This is a good change. It's a different way," the clerk said about Clinton's television appearance. "She's more colorful and seems closer to the people, more likable."
Certainly, the Clinton name still has star power in Turkey. A 1999 trip by then president Bill Clinton and his wife, where he visited an area that had been devastated by an earthquake, is still fondly remembered by Turks. In Istanbul's sprawling Grand Bazaar, it seems like almost every shop has a picture of the owner shaking hands with a beaming Bill Clinton.
"In Turkish-American relations, as much as the message matters, the messenger also matters," says Kiniklioglu. "The name Clinton resonates differently here."
Still, some observers caution that television appearances alone will not be enough to sway Turkish public opinion. "Overall, Obama's policies towards the region, towards Muslims -- these are the things that will help improve America's image in Turkey. Clinton's appearance is a good start, but without a change in the main policies, you can't expect things to improve," says Lale Sariibrahimoglu, an Ankara-based analyst and a columnist for the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.
"You can't just appoint someone to be in charge of PR," Sariibrahimoglu added. "The product has to be good if you want it to sell."
On the other hand, analysts hailed the planned Obama visit, scheduled for April 6-7, as another important step in restoring the Turkish-American relationship.
"The fact that the president of the United States is coming to Turkey illustrates his willingness to put an end to the downward slide in Turkish-American relations that began with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. An American president who opposed the Iraq war is now selecting a democratic country that also opposed the war and refused to help the United States for his first visit to the Islamic world. This symbolism should not be lost," Omer Taspinar, Director of the Turkey Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, recently wrote in a column in the Turkish daily Today's Zaman.
"Probably for the first time in its relations with the superpower, Turkey is getting the presidential attention it deserves. That this is happening in a non-crisis environment is all the more remarkable."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.