Turkey is critical to a more moderate Islam

Turkey is a successful example of a non-Arab land where Islam and democracy coexist and the economy prospers.

Despite a prickly relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel remains a key US ally in the Middle East.

Yet there’s another relationship critical to the entire US policy in the Middle East and the direction of the Islamic world: Turkey.

The relationship between the United States and Turkey is going to require deft handling in the rocky months and years ahead.

Turkey is a successful example of a non-Arab land where Islam and democracy coexist and the economy prospers.

Indonesia, the largest Islamic, non-Arab country in the world, is another such example. Both could play a constructive role in tempering Islamic extremism in the Arab world. But Indonesia lies in distant Southeast Asia, whereas Turkey is in and of the Middle East, with adjacent Arab neighbors.

Turkey has long been seen as a land bridge between East and West. For decades it has tried to impress Europe and to persuade Europe to let it join the European Union.

In recent times, Turkey has been refurbishing its ties with countries that border it like Iran, Iraq, and Syria. And it has planned to launch its own Arabic-language satellite TV station in order to connect more intimately with the Arab world.

This new relationship was certainly accelerated by the opposition of some European countries to Turkey’s admission to the EU.

But in major part, the new realignment is because Turkey’s new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a former professor of international relations, believes in a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.”

As an example of this philosophy: Turkey ended a 16-year freeze in relations with Armenia. Turkey has also granted more cultural and political rights to its 14 million-strong Kurdish minority in a bid to erase tensions not only with them but with Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Relations between Turkey and the US dipped in 2003 when the Turkish parliament refused to permit transit of American troops through Turkey to open a second front in the war with Iraq.

With the election of Mr. Obama, and his early visit to Turkey for a key outreach speech to the Muslim world, the US-Turkey relationship regained warmth.

Obama termed Turkey a “critical” ally, declared that the US was “not at war with Islam” and concluded his speech in parliament by kissing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on both cheeks – a sign of friendship. US support for Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU also did not hurt. Turkish officials were careful to explain at that time that their renewed interest in the Muslim East did not mean a chill toward the West.

Since then things have changed remarkably. Israeli military actions in Gaza, and the recent questionably organized Israeli commando action against a Turkish-flagged flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, have threatened Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Israel, and strained Turkish relations with the US.

Middle East expert Steven Cook wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that Washington and Ankara share the same goals: peace between Israel and Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. But, he added, “when you get down to details,Washington and Ankara “are on opposite ends of virtually all these issues.”

One example of this is the latest Turkish-Brazilian effort to defuse Iran’s nuclear ambitions, counterproductive to US diplomatic efforts.

The Rand Corporation’s Stephen Larrabee, in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations, cautions that US and Turkish interests “only partially coincide” in the Middle East. “It does not mean that Turkey is turning its back on the US or the West. It does not mean that its policies are becoming Islamized. The real issue is to manage those differences.”

US management of such differences will require acute sophistication.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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