- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

Anyone who understands the significance of Turkey’s secular democracy needs to pay attention to two things that happened last week.

In a photo opportunity with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “[W]e will issue shortly a statement of the strategic vision for U.S.-Turkish relations. It is indeed a relationship that has a great deal to contribute to regional stability and indeed to global stability.”

Clearly, anything that improves that relationship is a positive thing. But the shared vision document is very general and doesn’t get into actual policy. “The shared vision document sets a broad agenda between the two countries and launches a process of intensive dialogue on different levels,” Mr. Gul said.

So why was this document necessary? Even though the Turkish Parliament’s decision not to give the United States a northern front into Iraq has strained the relationship over the past three years, the allies’ shared interests are not focused solely on Iraq. Now, with a fairly insignificant document that will do little to advance prospects, the perception of it is crucial when assessing any improved relationship.

At the outset, the document attempts to debunk the idea that the United States wants to bring an end to the Islamic party government in Turkey. “Allegations of the U.S. desire and efforts to overthrow the AKP government are foolish and ludicrous,” said Ambassador Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. But the debate in Turkey will focus on the document’s impact on domestic politics, not bilateral relationships. Since the Bush administration discussed getting Turkey’s help in the Iraq war with AKP Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan before he became prime minister, it has become almost impossible to tell whether the United States is dealing with Turkey or the AKP.

In addition, the document’s release is poorly timed. The AKP keeps the debate over secularism intense, creating a tense run-up to the April 2007 presidential election. According to the Turkish Constitution, the parliament chooses the president. Therefore, the AKP, with less than 35 percent of the national vote but occupying the majority of the seats in the parliament, will determine Turkey’s next president. The shared vision document will be seen as part of an agreement between the United States and the AKP, which is likely to fuel the perception among Turks that Washington is backing the Islamists. Only time will tell how Turkish politicians will use it in creating domestic policy.

Meanwhile, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released the findings of its latest survey about Muslims in Europe last week. According to Pew, “In Turkey a slight (51 percent) majority now self-identifies as Muslim rather than Turkish, although this is a substantial rise from the 43 percent who did so in 2005.”

Only 19 percent of the population identifies itself as Turkish first, and 57 percent say they believe that “most or many Europeans are hostile to Muslims.” That finding is “directly related to Western policies, not Western people,” Mr. Gul said.

Caution, however, is needed. Even though the Turkish government isagreeing on a strategic vision document with the United States and making membership in the European Union a priority, if U.S. and EU policies feed Turkish anti-Westernism, that may mean the Islamist government is not providing the leadership it promises to Western capitals. And under its leadership, it is a reality that today’s Turkey is getting Islamified from the bottom up.

This document’s attempt to “normalize” U.S.-Turkey relations, coupled with the Pew findings, represents a conflict over what the strategic vision really means. It will allow the AKP a platform that includes being more involved in Middle East politics. It reads: “Turkey and the United States pledge themselves to work together on all issues of common concern, including promoting peace and stability in the broader Middle East through democracy; supporting international efforts towards a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including international efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a two-state solution.” That broad statement is pretty meaningless. But how people perceive it will matter.

Here is a problematic example. Mr. Gul says those who criticized Turkey when Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visited Ankara are now asking for Turkey’s help. When Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, both the Israeli foreign minister and the prime minister called their Turkish counterparts. Prime Minister Erdogan called President Bush and agreed to send an envoy to Damascus. But Mr. Gul has already implied that the U.S. backed away from its warning stance over the Hamas meeting, and if need be, Ankara will meet with Hamas again, he said.

Such a general document is only a short-term tactical move to keep relations between Turkey and the United States on track. But Turkey’s concerns over its border lines with Iran, Iraq and Syria still remain. And both sides need to think long and hard about how it will affect their relationship if and when the Turkish Parliament denies another request coming from Washington.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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