- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009



Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to a Muslim-majority nation during his two days in Turkey early this week. Turkey was a wise choice, and if relations with Russia are to receive a “reset,” U.S.-Turkish relations are in need of a serious upgrade. Mr. Obama's visit came at a critical juncture in U.S.-Turkish relations and represented a golden opportunity for both allies to take the relationship to a higher level.

The Turkey of today is a very different place from the “moderate Islamic model” former President George W. Bush touted five years ago. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been riding a wave of popular sentiment that blends a previously irreconcilable mix of religious and secular nationalism. In this context, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dramatic walkout at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, his call for Israel to be removed from the United Nations, and his posturing against an International Monetary Fund agreement to help Turkey weather the economic crisis illustrate the potential repercussions if Turkey were to detach completely from its Western anchors.

In 2009, such a detachment, combined with populism, could be disastrous. In normal times, Turkey's new appeal in the Islamic world could complement its economic needs by finding new sources of finance and opening new markets.

However, Turkey has a structural current-account deficit that has been financed by foreign direct investment flows, which have ebbed with the credit crisis and will not return. The Turkish lira is down almost 50 percent from last summer, industrial production has plummeted more than 20 percent, and government forecasts of economic output still look too rosy. Part of that is explained by established markets punishing all emerging markets indiscriminately. However, Turkish policy has exacerbated a dire situation.

In the lead-up to the March 29 municipal elections, which the AKP won easily, Mr. Erdogan has been fiscally irresponsible and has dithered over a crucial Turkey-IMF agreement.

Oddly, Turkey has become more European, more democratic, more Islamic and increasingly more nationalist simultaneously. Today, Turkey's identity and survival are not entirely bound up in the West. It is not just “Islamist” political power, Turkey's diplomatic efforts in the region, or the sense that Turkey, with its newly minted seat on the U.N. Security Council, is a “player.” It is all of these things. Without abandoning its European Union membership, Ankara's engagement with its neighbors to the south and east, including Syria and Iran, has garnered the Turks newfound regional prestige.

President Obama's visit is therefore an opportunity to leverage Turkey's new role in the Middle East. On Mr. Obama's three most urgent strategic issues (Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran) Turkey must be a critical partner.

Fortunately, U.S.-Turkish interests are more closely aligned now than at any point in the past six years. On Afghanistan, Turkey still might be reluctant to commit more troops, but Ankara also recognizes the priority of extinguishing the Afghan-Pakistani fires before they spread.

On Iraq, the imminent U.S. withdrawal is removing a central point of tension in the relationship. As the U.S. withdraws, Turkish fears of a U.S.-sponsored independent Kurdish region have faded. Moreover, U.S. cooperation with Turkey in the battle against the Kurdish Workers Party has facilitated Turkish rapprochement with the Kurdish leaders of Northern Iraq. In turn, Turkish-Kurdish cooperation generates economic interdependence along the border but also increases Turkish influence throughout Iraq at the expense of Iran. And short of military action, Ankara is equally determined to prevent a nuclear Iran and will support Mr. Obama's attempts to resolve the standoff diplomatically.

Mr. Obama's visit to Turkey was a historic occasion to deliver an “upgrade.” In this context, the domestic debate on the Armenian genocide is unhelpful as a breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations seems imminent.

Moreover, Turkey sits at the center of the president's foreign policy agenda, and its influence is rising, particularly in the broader Middle East. Therefore, the United States should seek to join forces with an ally that shares its strategic interests rather than try to go it alone.

Mr. Obama should redefine and reinvigorate this critical partnership by developing a joint U.S.-Turkish approach to key regional issues. Practically speaking, this means creating a bilateral mechanism that maps out a joint agenda, common objectives and coordinated policy actions.

However, in offering this “upgrade,” Mr. Obama also must speak truth to power in the AKP government. Turkey's full potential also depends on upholding the values it claims to be defending. Thus, clear steps on minority protection, religious freedom and stemming xenophobia would further enhance Turkish prestige and facilitate its aspirations to be the model alliance of civilizations it hosted in Istanbul.

Mr. Obama should welcome Turkey's ambitions and regional role while reminding Ankara that with this newfound power comes new responsibility.

Joshua W. Walker formerly worked on the Turkey desk at the State Department. Elliot Hen-Tov is a Truman National Security fellow.

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