Independence Day

Ankara -- Over the past half-century, the United States has had few more faithful allies than Turkey. Beginning with the legendary bravery that Turkish soldiers showed while fighting alongside Americans during the Korean War, and extending through Turkey's long membership in NATO and its unfailingly pro-Western stance during the Cold War, the alliance has remained strong despite a host of challenges.

Both sides are eager to maintain the relationship, but the policies of the Bush administration are making that steadily more difficult. Turkey is more self-confident than it once was, and increasingly willing to reject policies set in Washington if they seem inimical to Turkish interests. In particular, Turkey is pursuing its own path with regard to Iran and Syria; and the reason Turkey is moving gingerly away from its longtime ally is no surprise.

“This is an unintended consequence of the Iraq war,” said Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “America has contributed to Turkey running away from America. Ankara still wants good relations with Washington, but on its own terms. That's a new situation.”

Turkish-American relations reached a high point in 1999, when Bill Clinton made a highly successful visit to Turkey, and Turks cheered the United States for defending Muslims in Bosnia. Today, many ordinary Turks feel an intense and visceral dislike for George W. Bush, largely because they hold him responsible for casting Iraq into a pit of violence in which tens of thousands of Muslim civilians have been killed.

“The war angered every significant political group in Turkey, from Islamists to leftists to nationalists,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a recent paper. “Even many secular-minded and formerly pro-Western Turks now oppose much of Washington's Middle East policy.”

Shortly before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Turkish parliament turned down an American request for permission to launch part of the invasion from Turkey. That action led Paul Wolfowitz, then the undersecretary of defense, to lament that the Turkish military “did not play the strong leadership role … that we would have expected.” Many Turks took that remark as a call by Wolfowitz for Turkish generals to resume the suffocating control over the country that they had maintained for decades, or even to stage a military coup, and they were outraged. Their anger intensified when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested that Turkey was partly responsible for the strength of the insurgency in Iraq, since “if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north through Turkey, more of the Iraqi Saddam Hussein Baathist regime would have been captured or killed.”

Widespread popular anger over the Iraq War, fueled by comments like these, has allowed the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to chart a new and more independent foreign policy. Turks cheer when he takes steps that seem to conflict with American policies.

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One of the most striking differences that has emerged between Washington and Ankara is the way they approach Iran and Syria. The disdain that Turkish leaders feel for the Iranian and Syrian regimes nearly matches that of the Bush administration. Turks, however, believe the United States is dealing with this challenge in precisely the wrong way.

The Bush administration's policy toward Iran and Syria is to have no policy. Its leading figures, including Bush himself, want only to isolate these two countries. They hector, threaten, accuse, and demand, but steadfastly refuse to engage or negotiate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gone so far as to declare publicly that the United States will refuse to join European countries trying to strike a deal with Iran, once bluntly asserting that “there is no U.S.-European proposal to the Iranians. … There isn't and there won't be.”

This kind of talk drives Turks to distraction. Turkish leaders believe that the Iranian and Syrian regimes will become steadily more dangerous if they are treated as pariahs. Instead, they want to intensify relations with both countries, trade with them, and do everything possible to strengthen their middle classes and civil institutions. Erdogan has visited Damascus and Tehran, and in both cities he signed a series of agreements with government leaders. When President Bashar al-Assad visited Ankara last year, he was given a royal welcome. Trade between Turkey and Iran has more than doubled since 1999; trade between Turkey and Syria has more than tripled.

Turkish leaders, who maintain close ties to Israel, strongly condemned the recent declaration by Iran's new president that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” They deeply disapprove of Iran's nuclear ambitions and of Syria's reluctance to cooperate with investigators who are probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Yet while the United States considers these affronts to be further proof that Iran and Syria must be isolated from the world community, Turkey sees them as evidence that engagement with those countries is urgently necessary. It is a foreign-policy version of the classic advice Don Corleone gave his son in The Godfather, Part II: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

Some Turks are so outraged by Bush administration policies that they would be ready to support almost a complete break with Washington. Government leaders are far more prudent. In a series of interviews, I found them eager to avoid offending the United States, but nonetheless quietly determined to go their own way in the Middle East, even if that means contradicting American policy.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told me that he saw no “suspicion or lack of confidence between Turkey and the United States,” but added a classic diplomatic circumlocution: “We exchange views on certain issues.” I asked him if policy toward Syria and Iran was one of them.

“It's natural to want to have good relations with neighbors, without interfering in their houses,” Gul replied. “Having a neighbor is not like being in the army, where your service ends after two or three years. You cannot change geography or destiny. It is our people's right to do this. Does this mean we have sympathy with every regime? That's something different. But why should we be afraid of having relations with our neighbors?”

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Four years ago, a Turkish professor of international relations named Ahmet Davutoglu published a dense, 680-page book called Strategic Depth, which argued for a new, independent Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan was so impressed with it that, after taking office in 2003, he hired Davutoglu as his chief foreign-policy advisor. Over tea in a hotel lounge one evening -- officials in Turkey's religious-oriented government frown upon alcohol -- I asked Davutoglu why Turkey is so much more eager for dialogue with Iran and Syria than the United States is.

“Turkey has suffered because we had bad relations with our neighbors,” he told me. “We lost the whole decade of the 90s because of this. Now we want stable, peaceful relations. We share the view that regimes in some countries should change, but this should be done by peaceful means. You cannot transform a society just by eliminating a single political leadership. True change takes time, and comes by encouraging the development of a middle-class and civil society. This may not be consistent with the American policy of an ‘axis of evil.'”

Davutoglu was careful to say that he hoped Turkish and American policies in the Middle East could be “complementary,” which I took as an admission that they are quite different. Astute Turks who are not part of the government, and thus free to speak more directly, told me there is great popular support here for Turkey's newfound independence.

“This government is trying a multi-lateral foreign policy, which the Americans don't like at all but most Turks think is great,” said the newspaper columnist Haluk Sahin. “There is no anti-American feeling in Turkey, but people hate George Bush and his style. … People don't really like Syria or Assad, but they're against U.S. interference in Syrian affairs and would be very opposed to any U.S. military intervention in Syria. It's opposition to America rather than any sympathy with Syria or Iran.”

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Fortunately for the United States, the current Turkish government does not want to break openly with Washington. If a more populist regime were to come to power, however, it would find considerable popular support for doing so. “This is a very troubled relationship, but both sides need each other on certain issues,” said Cengiz Candar, a journalist and author who has decades of experience covering the Middle East. “They diverge on more and more issues, but they still recognize that they have some fundamental interests in common.”

Officials in the Bush administration seem to consider Turkey's moves just another example of how the rest of the world misunderstands American benevolence. A wiser reaction would be to reflect on whether the United States has something to learn from Turkey. During the Cold War, American officials, most notably Henry Kissinger, sought to influence the world through powerful regional allies like Iran, Zaire, and Indonesia. A new version of that policy might work in the modern era. Instead of tying itself to odious dictators, and taking their advice on how to deal with regional issues, the United States might find a new set of regional allies more in line with traditional American principles. Turkey would be an ideal one.

When the United States finally retreats from its current certainty that it knows what is best for every country in the world, it will once again begin taking advice from friends. The advice that Turkey has to offer, and the example it is setting, could provide the basis for a new and more productive American approach to the Middle East. It would require the United States to become less petulant, less demanding, and more patient, but might well produce the results that both Turkey and the United States want.

Such a change in U.S. posture would in no way signify a capitulation to forces of dictatorship. In fact, it would mean the opposite. Turkey is quite unhappy with many aspects of the Syrian regime, and is engaged in a strong though carefully managed competition with Iran for regional hegemony. The Turkish approach to these countries is not aimed at giving their regimes more leeway to repress their people and threaten the region and the world. Turkey has at least as much reason to want “regime change” in Damascus and Iran as the United States does.

But “regime change” need not entail military invasion, the death of thousands, or the blackening of America's name in the world. It can also be achieved through diplomacy, trade, and political engagement. This lesson of history has been proven repeatedly in recent decades. Tyrannies with which the United States maintains relations and approaches with carrots as well as sticks, ranging from the Soviet Union to South Africa to Taiwan, have ultimately emerged from their cocoons. Those the United States treats as pariahs, like Cuba and North Korea, never have. Turkey, counting on centuries of day-to-day engagement with its neighbors in the Middle East, has a lesson to teach other powers about how to effect change there. The United States would do well to embrace its carefully crafted approach to Syria, Iran, and the turbulent countries that surround them.

New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer is the author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.