President Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama held a baseball bat while speaking to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 30. White House

On July 30, U.S. President Barack Obama made a long-distance call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Obama was seated at his desk in the Oval Office, and the two men were discussing the crisis in Syria.

Obama held the telephone in his left hand. To his right was a baseball bat; its end rested on the floor as the president idly held the grip. The bat was signed by Hank Aaron, an American legend and Baseball Hall of Famer.

Sound menacing? Some Turkish lawmakers apparently thought so.

"The photo reveals from whom our prime minister receives orders to rule the country," exclaimed Metin Lutfi Baydar in a statement, according to Reuters.

Another politician, Umut Oran, called the photo "an implicit insult to Turkey and its citizens."

It is worth noting that both of these men are members of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, which is the main opposition bloc to Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

In reality, the baseball bat did not engender any widespread public backlash in Turkey. Instead, this "outrage" is of the manufactured type -- a minor episode of politically motivated finger-pointing, no different from the drama unfolding every day in the United States in the run-up to a presidential election, with contenders Mitt Romney and Barack Obama blasting each other on everything from campaign funding to gaffes to Cadillacs.

CHP members are eager to portray Erdogan as a weak leader, and have seized on a photo because it seems to imply American dominance over Turkish diplomacy.

To some, that's a bit of a stretch.

A columnist for Hurriyet, one of Turkey's most popular newspapers, joked about the incident. "We need to do something -- retaliation seems to be the most reasonable method," wrote Ahmet Hakan. "Our prime minister needs to hold something in his hand as he's calling Obama... perhaps a slipper, a belt or a rolling pin."

The White House was similarly dismissive. "We released the photo with only one purpose in mind, to highlight the president's continuing close relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan and draw attention to the important conversation they had about the worsening situation in Syria," said a statement.

Even Erdogan chimed in, saying in a televised interview that Obama is "a friend who never falls short of respect or politeness."

But others maintain that the baseball bat's placement could not have been accidental. When it comes to political imagery, argued John Robles in a column for the Voice of Russia, the White House doesn't leave anything to chance.

"To tell us that it was an innocent photo is to insult our intelligence and an attempt to make us believe something that is highly unlikely. The White House, which employs the world's best propaganda experts and media analysts, does not make such gaffes," he said.

Political bickering aside, the nature of Turkey's partnership with the United States has come under some scrutiny in recent years. Under Erdogan's AKP party, the once fiercely secular government has showed increased openness to Islamist ideas. The Arab Spring has presented Turkey with a new opportunity to strengthen its role as a Middle Eastern leader -- a role model of sorts for post-revolution Arab nations.

This puts Turkey in a tricky position, stuck between Middle Eastern and Western interests. Like the United States and its allies, Turkey has openly condemned the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has become one of the main destinations for Syrian defectors and refugees. But Turkey has also seen a cooling of diplomatic relations with Israel, and this does not bode well for the fragile balance of power in the Levant and across the Arab world.

On top of all this, Turkey is in the middle of rewriting its constitution -- it will switch to a system in which the president gains a bit more power and is selected in a national election, instead of being appointed by Parliament. Erdogan, who has promised not to run for another term as prime minister, is likely to go for the presidential post in 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Opponents -- especially those of the CHP -- are eager to tear him down. It'll be tough, as Erdogan has presided over economic growth despite a global recession and enjoys high approval ratings.

Perhaps that's why the CHP is taking any jabs it can get, turning Obama's handling of baseball bat into a cause for national concern.

Unfortunately for the Turkish opposition, this gambit looks like a swing and a miss.