April 13, 2009
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
After attending three summits - of the Group of 20 richest
countries, NATO and the European Union - President Obama ended his
European trip in Turkey. His messages there highlight the
importance Washington attaches to this regional player bridging
Europe and Asia, a veteran NATO ally, and an influential Muslim
In his speeches, Mr. Obama emphasized that Turkey is a Muslim
nation that respects democracy, the rule of law and is founded on a
set of modern principles. In view of the Islamist Justice and
Development Party's (AKP) stranglehold on power, this may be an
Mr. Obama also voiced support for Turkey's membership in the EU.
This did not endear him to many Europeans, especially French
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who rebuked the idea. Absent from these
speeches was any mention of recent trends that have raised
legitimate questions over Turkish leadership's commitment to
secular democracy, as well as its trajectory toward the West in
general and NATO in particular.
Until the AKP rose to power in 2002, a secular Turkey founded by
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after
World War I was considered a reliable U.S. partner that aspired for
EU membership. Today, however, the AKP appears to be moving Turkey
away from its pro-Western and pro-American orientation to a more
Middle Eastern and Islamist one.
Turkish secular elites are worried about their country's
direction. They argue that the AKP promotes a creeping Islamic
agenda - one close to Muslim Brotherhood's fundamentalism.
While the AKP has enjoyed popular support since it came to
power, for the first time since 2002 it lost support in the local
elections. The global economic crisis is in part responsible, but
voters are disappointed that AKP has strayed from its promises of a
more liberal Turkey in the EU. Prominent supporters of democracy
are concerned that the right of dissent, tolerance and government
accountability are being eroded.
In foreign policy, there are important signs that Turkey is
drifting away from the West. In 2006, Turkey became the first NATO
member to host the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal. Turkey also
enthusiastically hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose government has been
accused of genocide. Turkey's geography justifies its relations
with Iran, but not with Hamas or Sudan; only Islamist solidarity
and anti-Western sentiment can explain these ties.
Although Turkey has been trying to facilitate an Arab-Israeli
rapprochement by sponsoring Syrian-Israeli proximity talks and
several other initiatives, it is losing its impartiality and,
This was evident when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan spoke about Israel's operation in Gaza and attacked the
dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres before he stormed out of a
panel at the recent Davos World Economic Forum - only to get a
hero's welcome back home. AKP and other Islamists also sponsored a
flood of anti-Israel demonstrations, billboards and anti-Semitic
Turkey could potentially play a role in U.S.-Iranian
negotiations. However, Mr. Erdogan's judgment has been called into
question after he said last year that "those who ask Iran not to
produce nuclear weapons should themselves give up their nuclear
Developments in Turkey's Black Sea and Caucasus policies have
also been worrisome. During the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war,
Turkey proposed the "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform,"
a condominium of Russia and Turkey, together with the three South
Caucasus countries, but initially omitted the United States and EU
as well as Iran.
Turkey also temporarily blocked the transit of U.S. warships
delivering humanitarian aid to Georgia. And it prioritized
rapprochement with Russian ally Armenia over the ties with the
secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan. These developments underscore
Turkey's cozying up to Russia, as Moscow provides nearly two-thirds
of its gas supplies.
Turkey is critical to Europe's efforts to reduce its dependence
on Russian energy, including the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline that
would bring Caspian Basin gas to Europe, bypassing Russia. However,
Turkey is currently stalling a critical intergovernmental agreement
on the Nabucco pipeline. Thus, Turkey is throwing away a decade of
progress on the East-West energy corridor.
According to Mr. Erdogan, Turkey is open to providing assistance
for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq through Turkey. This
statement was borderline offensive in view of Turkey's refusal to
allow U.S. troops to cross its territory into Iraq in 2003. Yet the
planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq raises the importance of the
Incirlik U.S. Air Force Base through which 70 percent of supplies
to Iraq move. Beyond this, Turkey has long-standing ties to
Afghanistan and Pakistan and continues to play a positive role in
Mr. Obama attended a meeting between Turkish and Armenian
foreign ministers, signaling U.S. support to the rapprochement
between the two old foes. Mr. Obama avoided alienating a key ally
by not by using the "G" word (genocide) when talking about
Turkish-Armenian relations. He may face a domestic political
blowback for this. Yet a strong U.S. endorsement for the enhanced
Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation is also necessary, and hopefully
Despite Turkey's movement away from the West, the country
continues to play a key role in NATO and the region. Washington
should devote more attention to U.S.-Turkish relations. Strong
bilateral security relations are particularly important for
cooperation on the Iraq withdrawal, Afghanistan, dealing with Iran,
and addressing a resurgent Russia. The administration should stress
that it is in Turkey's long-term interests to remain politically
oriented toward the West.
Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian
Studies and International Energy Security at the Allison Center of
the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage
First appeared in the Washington Times
After attending three summits - of the Group of 20 richest countries, NATO and the European Union - President Obama ended his European trip in Turkey. His messages there highlight the importance Washington attaches to this regional player bridging Europe and Asia, a veteran NATO ally, and an influential Muslim country.
American Leadership Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
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