Obama Sees Turkey’s Influence and Value, Trip Shows

Samuel Berger and
Samuel Berger Former National Security Advisor (1997-2001)
Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

April 9, 2009

The past few years have been hard on America’s partnership with the Republic of Turkey. Some Americans blame Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party; they claim Erdogan and his formerly Islamist colleagues have systematically pushed Turkey from its Western orbit toward a Muslim orientation.

These critics very likely did not welcome President Obama’s decision to include Ankara on his first major trip abroad. They are missing the point. Since 2002, Turkey’s regional stature has waxed while a distracted America’s has waned. Today more than ever, Turkey can help—or hurt—American interests.

When it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, there are few international players outside Washington with greater clout on both sides of the border than Turkey.

Turkish diplomats have deftly engaged both countries at critical moments. Turkey is a mainstay of NATO’s force in Afghanistan, has trained Afghan police, and can take on missions like setting up girls’ schools and hospitals that are problematic for other NATO partners. In addition, Turkish bases may be useful as NATO sorts out supply routes for expanding operations.

On Iran, Tehran doesn’t listen to many countries, but it listens to Turkey. Just days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Ankara in March, President Abdullah Gul traveled to Tehran to tell Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to take the new U.S. administration seriously. Ankara enjoys that access because of its engagement policy, which has seen Turkish-Iranian commercial and other ties swell even as Turkey has delivered hard messages on the need to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

On Iraq, Erdogan has signaled Turkey’s full cooperation as U.S. forces withdraw. Equally important, Turkey’s proximity and strong interest in a unified, prosperous Iraq will make it a major player as the U.S. military role winds down—and its recent overtures to Iraq’s Kurds enhance its ability to mediate among Iraq’s various factions.

In the Middle East, Turkey has credibility on both the Syrian and Palestinian “tracks,” which has proven constructive in Syria-Israel indirect talks and negotiations for a Gaza cease-fire, and helps explain why George Mitchell has already visited Ankara twice.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. administration seeks to “reset” relations with Russia, Ankara will play a new role. Russia has become Turkey’s largest trading partner; it has targeted Turkey as the key to consolidating its energy primacy; and Russian-Turkish positions have converged on issues from Black Sea security to Iran to Gaza. The days when Ankara would simply follow the U.S. lead on Russia are over. But Turkey can and is willing to be more of a full partner on Russia than in the past.

None of this is to say that the United States and Turkey can expect strategic partnership to be seamless. While both sides traditionally describe U.S.-Turkish relations as based on “common values and interests,” perspectives compete on such interests as calibrating carrots vs. sticks on Iran; the proper role for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; Russia’s place in strategic energy transportation; what constitute legitimate security steps by Israel; and how to deal with Sudan.

In terms of values, the Obama administration must acknowledge the complexity of Turkey’s real but still maturing democracy. There should be no doubt of U.S. readiness to work with freely elected Turkish leaders. Neither can the United States ignore Erdogan’s efforts to take his electoral successes as license to intimidate critics in the media and elsewhere.

Then there is question of the April anniversary of the 1915 events that Armenians call “genocide” and how Congress—or the White House—will mark the tragic events in the Ottoman Empire at the start of the last century. Reports of imminent moves to normalize Turkey’s relations with Armenia are welcome. If implemented swiftly, such a process could defuse an early crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations.

As for the AK government’s “Islamic” orientation, it is true that Erdogan and his colleagues view the world through the eyes of devout Muslims. But that does not mean our leaders cannot find common ground, or have respectful, candid discussions. Not engaging with Turkey’s government simply raises the likelihood that Turkish and American policies will grow apart.

Thus, relations with Turkey will demand hands-on attention long after President Obama leaves Ankara. And that is how it should be. As a strategically located, secular democracy of nearly 80 million people, most of them Muslims; a member of NATO, the OECD, the G-20, the U.N. Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and a candidate for the European Union, Turkey is worth the time and effort.

It is to President Obama’s credit that he has understood this so soon.