For those who haven’t been paying attention, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke on the phone on Monday about the situation in Syria, but apparently far more newsworthy is the fact that, as seen in this photo, Obama was holding a baseball bat during their conversation. This has caused an uproar, with reporters asking White House press secretary Jay Carney whether there is a hidden meaning or symbolic message to be gleaned from the fact that Obama had what I assume is a Louisville Slugger in his hand. A columnist in the Asia Times summed up the message that Turks must have taken away from the picture, writing that “the Turks could see any number of reasons: Obama was likely grandstanding as a tough world leader; possibly, threatening Bashar; maybe, impressing Israel and Saudi Arabia – or, Iran and Russia. But they calmly concluded that Obama was conveying a blunt message to Erdogan to speed up the ‘regime change’ in Syria: ‘Whack Bashar, ErdoganBey’.” In fact, the baseball bat aroused so many questions in Turkey that the White House was forced to issue a statement clarifying that the sole purpose of posting the picture online was highlight the close relationship between Obama and Erdoğan.
While this appears to be nothing more than a silly incident, it actually holds some interesting lessons for the U.S.-Turkey relationship. To my American eyes, it is pretty obvious what is going on here; the administration released a photo during an election season that portrays Obama as a regular guy. He is holding a baseball bat, which shows that he is a baseball fan/sports aficionado, and it also shows him in a casual pose. A lot of times when I am working, I have a ball in my hand that I throw up and down since it helps me think, and if Obama has a similar tic, it helps voters identify with him, as silly and superficial as that may be. Had the caption on the photo informed us that Obama was talking on the phone to Harry Reid, nobody would have given it a second glance.
Obama wasn’t talking to Harry Reid though, which makes all the difference and is why it was foolish for the White House to send the photo out. To Turkish eyes, the fact that Obama was holding a bat while talking to Erdoğan about Syria might be wrought with symbolism and suggest that Obama is conveying the message to Erdoğan to get tougher with Bashar al-Assad. More likely, and quite understandably from the Turkish point of view, Obama holding a bat while talking to the Turkish prime minister is viewed as being disrespectful, and it plays on longstanding Turkish fears that the U.S. does not take Turkey seriously or view Turkey as an equal. The casual message that the White House wants to send to American voters conveys a very different and more damaging message to the Turks, and after nearly four years in office, the White House needs to be more aware of this type of stuff. The fact that the Turkish opposition saw the political utility in bringing up the bat incident is indicative that the whole thing is not just seen as a throwaway photo, but that it plays on fears that the U.S. essentially uses Turkey when it is convenient but does not accord Turkey the respect that it deserves. So in the future, the U.S. needs to be more mindful that the way things play here is not necessarily the way things play abroad, and that is particularly true when the political imagery involves a foreign country. As for Turkey? Well, sometimes a bat is just a bat.