Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama Reigns in Era of New Opportunity in U.S.-Turkey Relations

PHOTO from the New York Times

President Obama's inauguration on Tuesday excited millions around the world hopeful that a new American administration -- led by a seemingly very different man -- might translate into real and meaningful change. Like elsewhere across the globe, Obama's message of change, perceived moderation, and calls for transparent government are well received by Turks. Upon Obama's election, 44 sheep were slaughtered in the eastern city of Van to commemorate Obama's election as the 44th president of the United States. A recent BBC poll (taken before the Gaza crisis) revealed that 51 percent of Turks believe Obama will strengthen American relations with the rest of the world, a number up from 11 percent just six months ago when most Turks seemed despairingly indifferent to the results of the U.S. election. Not only is the increase significant, but also the sheer number of hopeful people: Turks are one of the most anti-American populations in the world, and conspiracy theories about U.S. support for the PKK and Middle East designs abound (see "I Am Not in the CIA," June 11 post, for more background). With such political capital at his disposal, President Obama has a real opportunity to transform U.S.-Turkey relations for the better. The U.S. and Turkey have plenty of national interests in common and foreign policy areas ripe for mutual cooperation are many.

As I laid out in Foreign Policy in Focus in November, Turkey is teetering between East and West in its foreign policy orientation. Although Turkey has historically linked itself to the West, largely anchored by its European vocation and NATO membership, a growing number of Turks have begun to advocate that Turkey should strengthen relations with Eastern powers, especially Russia, and/or adopt a more isolationist posture. Essential to determining Turkey's future relations with the West will be the outcome of its accession to the European Union, as well as good relations with the United States. In order to assure both, the United States should do all it can to facilitate Turkish accession and come to terms with a Turkey more independent in its thinking, and with foreign policy aspirations more its own than at any time during the Cold War. The U.S.-Turkey relationship is in transition, and Cold War understandings of Turkey are anachronistic. Russia is now Turkey's largest trading partner, and Ankara is seeking better relations with Muslim capitals throughout the Middle East. The more complex relationship between Europe and the United States also plays a hand. Europe and America are not always on the same page, and Turkey should not be expected to choose between the two -- for an example, look no further than European opposition to the invasion of the Iraq. The ambitious foreign policy of Turkey's AKP-led government seeks to expand Turkey's soft power and restore relations with countries that were once provinces over which the Ottomans were suzerain (see Mustafa Akyol, Newsweek, Dec. 6). As Turkey endeavors to meet its foreign policy objectives -- and, discover their implications in so doing -- the United States should look for areas of overlapping interest, meanwhile doing all it can to anchor Turkey firmly to the West.

The United States should build multilateral ties with Turkish NGOs, businesses, and cultural/educational institutions. By way of this new multilateral approach (Cf. Mary Kaldor, Boston Review, Feb./March 2005), President Obama will not only bolster support for inter-state diplomacy, but build the kinds of deep, inter-penetrating social ties that will not only counter anti-Americanism inside Turkey, but provide the cement for friendly future relations. Obama would also do well to promote Turkey within NATO, praising the productive role it is playing in Afghanistan and the potential it has in brokering peace in the Middle East. In terms of NATO, Obama would do well to encourage Turkey to assent to the Berlin Plus Agreement, uniting Turkey with the rest of Europe in support of a mechanism important to the EU's Common European Security and Defense Policy. President Obama would also be well-advised to encourage a diplomatic solution to Cyprus, taking advantage of the election of moderates on both the Greek and Turkish-Cypriot sides so that a UN-sponsored bicommunal solution again becomes a viable option.

The Obama Administration should do everything in its power to support human rights and democracy in Turkey, strengthening governing institutions by standing firmly behind pro-reform/accession forces inside Turkey and the European Union. President Bush was rather lackadaisical in his support of the EU process, and criticism of human rights/support for democratic institutions in Turkey has been lacking in the past eight years. When sinister forces threatened to topple the AKP-elected government last year and sought to undermine the election of President Gül the year before that, the United States did little to voice its disapproval, leaving Europe largely alone in its vehement opposition to these anti-democratic posturings. While AKP survived the closure case, its leaders have not forgotten the lack of support(see Henri Barkey, Washington Post, Aug. 23). President Obama should address this lacuna quickly and steadfastly by expressing solidarity with Turkish democratization efforts, including the salvation of AKP at the Constitutional Court last July -- though, disappointingly, AKP was found guilty of the trumped up charges it faced, just barely escaping closure.

Concomitantly, President Obama will do well to ignore the falsehoods and propaganda coming from neoconservative think-tanks and journals like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Quarterly (see my posts of Nov. 24 and April 18; also, Avni Dogru, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 24). Turkish press have a tendency to fixate and generate conspiracy theories based on the publications and public statements of figures like Michael Rubin, and Obama would do the U.S.' relationship well if it makes clear from the beginning that these people have no influence in policy making.

And, finally, one last thing the United States might do to bulwark democratization is demonstrate its support for the ongoing Ergenekon investigation. Although the United States is well-advised to stay far removed from the volatile domestic politics in which the investigation is inextricably entangled, President Obama could further strengthen relations if he were to make a public statement expressing support for the opportunity the investigation offers to extirpate lingering elements of Turkey's historic 'deep state,' the shadowy, obfuscate network of anti-democratic forces hidden beneath state structures. In doing, the President should also call for government transparency during the investigation. The impact of such a position would bolster support for the United States within AKP and its political constituency, but might also -- depending on how it is made -- curry favor with secular leftist Turks, many of whom still remember the 1980 military coup in which deep state elements were indubitably involved. To add weight to this second point, it is appropriate to note the significant amount of conjecture about U.S. involvement in the anti-leftist coup ('Operation Gladio,' see 25/1/08 post), resentment around which is still a part of Turkish historical memory.

Obama foreign policy toward Turkey is not without its usual pitfalls and opportunities, though Ankara's neo-Ottoman foreign policy has perhaps made things a bit easier. The Armenian 'genocide' question still persists, as does the United States' role in Iraq, namely the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the use of northern Iraq as a safe haven for the PKK. However, thanks to Turkey's rapprochement with Armenia and the KRG, both situations, respectively, might be improved. More difficult will be the United States' support for Israel, which given the size and intensity of Turkish protests against Israel's recent invasion of Gaza, poses the risk of infecting good relations by the sheer potential preponderance of the issue. Ankara's new interest in the conflict, not to mention the demonstrated willingness of the Israelis to inflict mass civilian casualties, make the situation in the Palestine Occupied Territories even more explosive in terms of U.S.-Turkey relations.

Turkey's expanding foreign policy might well prove of mutual benefit to both states. There is hope that Turkey's symbiotic relationship with Iran places Turkey in a useful position to mediate between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Shortly after Obama's victory, identifying Iran as the United States' most vexing challenge, Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed Turkey's willingness to help the United States negotiate a solution. Further, Turkey's efforts to achieve an alliance between Caucasus states are critical to the security of Central Asia, a potentially effective way to protect the sovereignty of these newly-independent states.

And, as a hopeful aside, in December, Obama transition aides mentioned the President is considering a major speech debunking Huntington's infamous "Clash of Civilizations" thesis to be delivered in a Muslim capital -- might it be İstanbul?

(For a wonderfully concise analysis and fairly dead-on take on the U.S.-Turkey relationship and what Obama might do to improve it, see Spencer P. Boyer and Brian Katulis, "The Neglected Alliance Restoring U.S.–Turkish Relations to Meet 21st Century Challenges," Center for American Progress, December 2008.)

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