To celebrate Barack Obama's election as the 44th US president, villagers in a remote province of Turkey sacrificed 44 sheep. It was a small gesture in a faraway land, but one with a big message: hope for a revived relationship.
Polls show this NATO ally and Middle East powerhouse holds opinions of America that are among the lowest in the world. That's mostly due to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and related issues. The incoming Obama administration would do well to repair ties with this secular Muslim democracy, and take greater advantage of Turkey's role in a tense region where the countries' interests overlap.
To Turkey's north lie authoritarian Russia and the Caucasus states, site of frozen and hot conflicts. To the east sit the energy-rich Caspian Sea basin, Iran and its nuclear program, and, beyond that, Afghanistan. Directly south are Iraq and Syria, two troubled states in the region.
Ankara, the capital, has taken on the ambitious goal of "zero problems" on its borders and is trying to become a neighborhood troubleshooter. After Moscow rolled over Georgia in August, for instance, Ankara proposed a regional dialogue, but Georgia wasn't interested in talking to the Russian bear that nearly swallowed it whole.
Turkey has brought Syria and Israel together to negotiate over the Golan Heights. Last week, it hosted the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan for antiterrorism talks. It is at long last reaching out to Armenia – despite a controversial history over the 1915 massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. Now it's offering to mediate between the US and Iran, and has been elected to a temporary seat on the UN Security Council – center stage for the Iran stalemate.
Call this diplomatic and economic expansion "Ottoman Lite."
The US has much to gain from Turkey's emerging role, including a region-altering breakthrough in talks between Israel and Syria that need a big push from a President Obama. And Turkey will be an important player as the US pulls out of Iraq. Ankara has faulted the US for not doing enough to halt attacks on Turkey from Kurdish terrorists in northern Iraq.
Even if the two countries smooth over tensions, though, the road ahead will be as hilly as the Turkish capital.
At US election time, Turkish television obsessed over the prospect of the new US Congress passing a resolution – with Mr. Obama's blessing – that recognizes the Armenian massacres as genocide. Turkey staunchly denies the claim. Yet in focusing on this, Turkey makes the genocide controversy America's problem, when it's really Turkey's to resolve. The obsession hints at other issues to work out, including human rights abuses.
The US, on the other hand, must not expect Turkey to be the automatic ally of cold-war days. Russia has become its largest trading partner, and the Muslim party now in power feels a greater kinship with its Muslim brothers in the region.
Turkey is attempting to balance its allegiance with the West with a new attentiveness to its neighbors. It is a tricky balance indeed, but one that can also benefit Washington.