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.
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 overstretch.
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, therefore, credibility.
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 rhetoric.
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 weapons first."
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 both countries.
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 forthcoming.
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.
Ariel 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 Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times