Is Turkey the Key to a New Middle East Approach?

As Barack Obama and his caravan of diplomats, handlers, and hangers-on complete the last leg of his first European tour as president, America's pied piper has one more gift to bestow. After a week spent in the halls of the United States' older Atlantic allies, Air Force One landed in the Turkish capital of Ankara today.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, did not travel to Turkey until 2004 -- and then only for the same annual NATO summit Obama wrapped up in Strasbourg on Friday. Obama only just met Prime Minister (and former President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey last week at the G-20 and European Union summits. That the U.S. president is literally going the extra miles to Turkey speaks volumes about the Obama administration's determination to honor the Islamist democracy as America's best bridge to the ever-turbulent Middle East.

The president recently told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he was "keeping score" when it comes to support for his domestic agenda -- and the same could be said of his foreign policy. It's not just that Turkey, which shares a border with Iraq, has been a crucial partner in basing and troop arrangements during the six-year occupation. (Seventy percent of military supplies in Iraq, from food to ammunition, pass through Turkey, and its air force provides support for the American logistical supply chain in Afghanistan.) Turkey is a bilateral partner in the NATO alliance to which it has belonged since 1952 and a major variable in the energy equation in the Caucasus region it straddles, from the Balkans on the west coast to the Iranian regime directly to its south. Turkey also filled the vacuum left by American diplomatic intransigence during the Bush years, maintaining good relations with Iran, Syria, and even Hamas in Palestine -- all while guarding its strong rapport with Israel, with whom it will start performing naval exercises this summer.

Speaking to the Turkish Parliament today, Obama offered effusive praise: "Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide -- it is where they come together. In the beauty of your culture. In the richness of your history. In the strength of your democracy," he said.

Having expanded their diplomatic footprint, the Turks perhaps deserve to be bathed in a little of that Obama sunshine. "Turkey has raised the bar for political sophistication in the region," says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. "They've done what the U.S. cannot do," adds Amjad Atallah, Levy's co-director at New America. "They've shown how you can be Israel's ally and not support Israel's occupation. They're showing Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan how they can be allies of Israel and not support Israel's excesses."

But don't be fooled: This two-city trip will not occasion the Grand Speech to the Muslim World that Obama has pledged to deliver from an Islamic capital in the first year of his presidency. Rather, putting Ankara and Istanbul on the same itinerary as London and Prague sends a clear message about the White House's support for Turkish integration into the European community -- still controversial, both in Turkey and within the EU. Spencer Boyer, director of international law and diplomacy in the national-security program of the Center for American Progress, had recommended that Obama frame any trip to Turkey in a European context, "to demonstrate that the United States considers Turkish membership in the EU and stronger ties to the West to be an important strategic objective."

Thus Obama was reportedly key to addressing Turkish concerns about the election of a NATO secretary general during the weekend meetings of the alliance. And in Ankara, the president met with both Erdogan and current President Abdullah Gul, both of whom have been bullish on the prospect of official integration into Europe, and in speaking to the Turkish assembly, prodded both sides into action: "Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith," he said. "And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more." Obama is also set to join a roundtable conversation with students in Istanbul on Tuesday -- a project that may be simulcast via Internet to viewers in Turkey, in Europe, and around the globe.

Obama's Middle Eastern outreach to date has been a mixture of these sweeping gestures and diplomatic spadework -- he sent a friendly missive to Iran on the Persian holiday of Nowruz, before brokering the first high-level diplomatic meeting between a deputy Iranian foreign minister and American envoy Richard Holbrooke in the Hague. By first sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Indonesia during her Asia trip and now making a stop in not one but two Turkish cities, Obama appears to be extending a hand to moderate Muslim nations worldwide.

"It almost says 'boo' to the 'You're with us or against us' nonsense of the previous years," Levy says. Following the anti-Manichean guidance of policy-makers like Clinton and former Sen.Chuck Hagel, President Obama hopes to incentivize political moderation without reflexively punishing Muslim nations for being populated with, well, Muslims. As Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, told reporters in advance of the trip, the White House will treat Turkey's modernizing regime as "a real bridge between Asia and Europe."

Still, there should be no mischaracterization of the partners in this delicate alliance -- Turkey is an Islamist democracy, and its people today have a less favorable opinion of the United States than do Russians, Chinese, and even Pakistanis. Ten years ago, 86 percent of Turkish citizens expressed some degree of religiosity; in 2006 the figure was 93 percent. Most are Muslims, whether ethnic Kurds or Turks. And since the peaceful 2007 elections, Turkish democracy has been in the hands of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an explicitly Islamist party.

Luckily for the United States, the conflict between Islamism and secularism is a familiar internal debate in Turkey. A significant political divide still exists between hard-right political parties, the Islamists of the AKP -- which lost seats in regional elections last month for the first time in seven years -- and secularists in the party and the country as a whole. Civilian protests against fundamentalist lawmaking, including attempts to criminalize adultery, enact alcohol prohibition, and reverse the national ban on head scarves, prevented these rules from taking hold. The national military has been sapped of power in recent years, and an ascendant, pro-capitalist business class now fuses social conservatism with an economic liberalism that could likewise affect the political space.

Both Erdogan and current president Gul of the AKP have been driving a pro-western approach to foreign relations, which has meant reforming human rights abuses, religious intolerance, or cultural elements of Turkish society that also conflict with EU membership mores. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy, observes that "Erdogan, with the AKP party, is trying to create an Islamic Democratic Party model along the lines of Christian Democratic parties in Europe."

So Turkey is an Obama of a country: plural, enigmatic, between two worlds. And, like Obama, it is a harbinger of a larger narrative in global foreign relations. A more European Turkey -- literally if not spiritually -- will not oust Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia but could help meliorate political extremism in the region. And that's just the point of Obama's visit. Recall that after winning the 2006 parliamentary elections in Palestine, Hamas leaders traveled to Turkey to praise the nation as a model for a future Palestinian homeland, in which an Islamist party governs a secular state. And after Israel's offensive in Gaza in December, it was the pro-Western Erdogan who became the "poster boy" for criticism of Israel in the Arab world, Levy says -- a relative improvement over the prominence that Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran enjoyed during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Bremmer, who also writes at Foreign Policy, adds that the global financial crisis has increased the chance of nationalist, populist backlash against Western liberalization but that Turkey's constructive coexistence with the United States could provide a template for other transitional democracies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. "If anyone has a shot at [reform], they do," he says.

Finally: We know Obama is not likely to address the Muslim world directly while in Istanbul. But Tuesday's student meeting will invariably steer away from European integration -- losing popularity on the Turkish street -- and toward the region where Turkey's footprint has been largest in the past five years. There's little doubt that Obama will be asked about the new Israeli government, for example. It may well be the president's first public comment on the Netanyahu government. Look for additional questions on the objectives for peace there, as well as in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the original casus belli, Iraq.

Viewers worldwide should see this scrutiny as a good thing, however: Following up on his one-way speech to Parliament, President Obama can listen, learn, and engage a low-stakes preview of the expected Middle Eastern address, laying out, in his own language, the precise mission for the United States in the region -- instead of having foreign governments do it for him. Like his even-keeled performances during the presidential campaign, an effective presentation could be essential to changing public opinion about the West in Turkey and beyond. It's also a golden opportunity to make the case for real democracy promotion to the American people, who might otherwise miss the subtle strategy behind the visit. That alone could make the miles-wide detour in the president's busy schedule worth it.

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