Obama’s sensible approach to Turkey

President Obama’s trip to Europe has been a success, especially in media and public relations terms. Including both the European Union and NATO dimensions of Atlantic-area relationships reinforces awareness of association between economic growth and military security. The White House has been particularly astute to conclude the trip by visiting Turkey, a vital as well as pivotal ally in the region — and beyond.

U.S. relations with this traditionally very close ally were strained to the breaking point by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ankara argued Washington was making a serious strategic blunder, and feared resulting instability would encourage violent Kurdish separatism, which has in fact occurred. Since the United States ended the regime of Saddam Hussein, Islamic terrorists have targeted Turkey.

Political tensions further raise the stakes. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to a decisive victory in parliamentary elections in the summer of 2007. In effect, a referendum was held on Muslim political leadership of the nation. Last month the ruling party also won municipal elections, but narrowly.

Since the successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the government of Turkey has been constitutionally strictly secular. The army serves as watchdog to keep religion at bay. Four times in the 20th century, the generals intervened, sometimes with bloody results. Last summer, two retired generals were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup, and others were detained.

Meanwhile, the E.U. has turned Turkey’s application for membership into seemingly endless agony. No doubt concern about Islamic extremism contributes to caution. However, more general longstanding European prejudice against outside populations undeniably is involved. Obama was quite sensible on this trip to endorse publicly Turkey’s application.

Despite all these difficulties, developments within Turkey overall have been reassuring for U.S. foreign policy and friends of democracy generally. The people remain committed to representative government. To date, terrorist acts in Turkey have boomeranged, resulting in considerable public hostility. The AKP is politically moderate and so far has operated carefully to preclude a uniformed crackdown.

Turkey’s primary geo-strategic importance is undeniable. Ankara has placed priority on good relations with Israel as well as Arab states. Turkey commands vital sea lanes and trade routes, including the Straits of Bosporus linking the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and potential oil and gas routes from the Caucasus.

Turkey also controls headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which are vital to Iraq and Syria. The importance of this water was demonstrated in 1998, when a four-week standoff with Syria was ended, and Kurd separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan expelled from that country, in the face of Ankara’s threat to turn off the faucet.

Since the 1970s, Middle Eastern states generally have seen domestic water shortfalls as industrial and consumer demands have expanded. In-depth water analysis by Suki Jobson of the Royal Institute of International Affairs describes the expanding strategic leverage from control of this resource.

Turkey has been actively engaged in Afghanistan, including major military command responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara. The close relationship between Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal and President George H.W. Bush was a key factor.

Turkey also played an important Allied role during the Korean War. The UN military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu)