ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — In a humble finish to his first foreign trip, President Barack Obama said that despite its flaws and past mistakes, the United States is poised for a “new chapter in American engagement” with Muslims and the rest of the world.
Calling for a greater understanding among nations, Obama said the United States needs to be more patient in its dealings with the world. 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 the same arguments.”
Addressing college students in Turkey's largest city, Obama rejected the stereotype that Americans are selfish and crass.
“I’m here to tell you that's not the country I know and not the country I love,” the president said. “America, like every other nation, has made mistakes and has its flaws, but for more than two centuries it has strived” to seek a more perfect union.
The students formed a tight circle around Obama, who slowly paced a sky-blue rug while answering their questions. He promised to wrap the session up before the Muslim call to prayer.
He repeated his pledge to rebuild relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
“I am personally committed to a new chapter in American engagement,” Obama said. “We can't afford to talk past one another and focus only on our differences, or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us.”
The questions 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.”
Axelrod cited accords on revamping global financial rules, restarting arms talks with Russia and sending more NATO troops to Afghanistan.
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, 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.
The museum – first a basilica, then a mosque, now a Byzantine architectural wonder – dates to 537 and is a shrine to the art, religion and culture of this city of 20 million once known as Constantinople.
Obama strolled slowly through the massive interior of the stone basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum, gazing at Christian-themed frescos interspersed with giant suspended disks with Arabic writing. With a guide and Erdogan, Obama smiled and nodded often, keeping his hands clasped in front of him. The nearby Blue or Sultan Ahmet Mosque is famed for its massive dome, minarets and thousands of hand-painted blue tiles.
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.
Obama has personal ties to Islam. His father was a Muslim Kenyan, and Obama lived as a child in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. He told lawmakers that he knows Americans have been enriched by their country’s Muslim heritage — “I know, because I am one of them.”
Photo: President Barack Obama and Turkey's President Abdullah Gul hold a joint news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, April 6.