Time to heal US-Turkey wounds

Sunday's elections give a fresh opportunity to fix a terrible collapse in bilateral ties.

Imagine a stable, prosperous, secular Muslim democracy in the Middle East. The dream of just such an outcome was the worthiest, albeit least likely, of President Bush's stated aspirations for the war in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the way in which the administration has pursued this objective has damaged what remains the best hope for a successful moderate Muslim democracy in the region: Turkey.

Since the founding of the modern republic more than eight decades ago, Turkey has charted a long and uneven journey toward democracy. A responsible member of the NATO alliance, it was among America's most dependable and effective allies in a turbulent region.

The Pew Research Center poll of 2000 found that 52 percent of Turks held a favorable view of America, a higher percent than any country in the region other than Israel.

Since then, things seem to have gone terribly wrong. The 2007 Pew poll found US favorability in Turkey has plummeted to 9 percent. Even more remarkable, Turks now see the US as the single biggest threat to their nation's security. Far from bolstering what could be an exemplar for the region, the Bush administration is responsible for a catastrophic collapse in bilateral relations.

America's unpopularity stems from Turks' perception that US policies are making their country more insecure at a time of great insecurity. As it modernizes to meet the political and economic criteria for joining the European Union (EU), Turkey has undertaken wrenching reforms. Rather than dampening factors that could fuel religious extremism and ethnic separatism, the policies of the US and some EU member countries have served to accentuate them.

Ironically, the schism in US-Turkish relations took place as a result of democracy at work. In March 2003, with 90 percent of the Turkish public opposed to the US invasion of Iraq, parliament voted down a measure allowing US forces to use Turkey's border with Iraq as a northern front in the invasion.

American officials suddenly found democracy an inconvenient obstacle. A former US ambassador to Turkey questioned Turkey's "democratic credentials," arguing that the government was pandering to the forces of public opinion, rather than providing enlightened leadership to its citizens.

Stung by Turkey's rejection, the Bush administration conducted the war in Iraq with no regard for Turkey's interests. A US-backed, autonomous, and increasingly emboldened Kurdistan Regional Government poses an existential threat to nationalists in Turkey. Failure to address the reality of a sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan for members of the PKK – a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group – enrages even moderate Turks.

Imagine American reactions if terrorists were exploding bombs in American cities and then slipping across the border to sanctuaries in northern Mexico. Should a referendum on the future status of oil-rich Kirkuk place it under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government, it is plausible that Turkey would finally act on its threat to invade northern Iraq.

All this was avoidable – and even now remains reparable. Were the US to demonstrate a readiness to address real threats to Turkey's interests, Turkey could play a constructive role in Iraqi Kurdistan, while improving the well-being of its own Kurdish-populated southeast.

Turks are already heavily invested in Iraqi Kurdistan's economic development, with more than 300 Turkish companies operating in the region. Turkish pipelines could provide Kurds an opportunity to export oil to international markets. A working bargain between the Kurds and Turkey is not beyond the reach of effective US leadership.

Unfortunately, policymakers in Washington seem intent on letting an important opportunity fester until it becomes a crisis.

The White House's strategic myopia was in full display during Turkey's constitutional crisis in April.

The crisis began when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the presidency. Mr. Gul, like Mr. Erdogan, is a member of the Islamic-inspired AK party. His Islamist past and head-scarf-wearing wife raised fears of conservative Muslim dominance and triggered enormous backlash from Turkey's secular establishment.

It also brought ominous warnings from the military, which in Turkey's democracy enjoys a special status as guardian of the state, a role it exercised in overthrowing four earlier elected governments. Turkey's democrats found Washington's silence during this turmoil deafening.

To defuse the crisis, Erdogan moved to early general elections. Following the AK's solid election victory this weekend, the US should undertake a major diplomatic initiative to resuscitate US-Turkish relations.

This should begin with applause for Turkey's successful demonstration of what is possible in modernizing a moderate, secular Muslim democracy. It should include renewed advocacy for Turkish membership in the EU. But most important, it should engage Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in specific steps to stop cross-border terrorist attacks from Kurdistan.

Moreover, this can be done without sacrificing other regional priorities. Even as Mr. Bush's hopes for Iraq founder, he still has an opportunity to support a credible counter-narrative to the rhetoric of radical Islamist groups across the region.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."

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