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reflections

Apr 7, 2009 | 01:56 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Courting Turkey

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the Parliament in Ankara on Monday, in one of the most aggrandizing approaches that we have seen in years. Obama's personality and diction were set to full-strength shine: He did everything possible to communicate his respect and admiration of Turkey's position and history. It was a speech meant to impress, and from what we have been hearing, Obama hit his mark. His address came near the end of seven days of nonstop meetings among Western and world leaders, stretching from the G-20 to NATO to the European Union and wrapping up with the April 6 bilateral meetings between Obama and Turkish leaders. Obama didn't get as much as he hoped to out of the Europeans — and especially out of Germany — so he is looking to Turkey instead. So far, it appears that the Americans either have granted, or leaned on the Europeans to grant, a series of not-so-minor concessions to Turkey. Obama's speech underscored the Americans' feeling that Turkey is in a prime position to influence events. To be Turkish is to balance oneself between the West and the Islamic worlds, as well as between the United States and Russia. Washington wants to use Turkey's position as the leading Muslim state — with influence from the Middle East to South Asia — to deal with the unrest in the Arab/Muslim world and, ideally, as a hedge against Russia. Judging from the abject flattery and language indicating that Obama thought highly of Turkey's ability to act in accordance with mutual best interests, it is fairly clear that Obama's talks with the Turkish leadership went extremely well. A U.S.-Turkish partnership would be a powerful one. Turkey has deep economic and historical links throughout the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Considering the heft of U.S. influence, money and military power, any regional force opposed to a U.S.-Turkish duo would have its work cut out for it. And there are three major powers that would be affected by such a pairing. The first is Europe. While the European Union is nowhere near becoming a federated state, it has the potential to become a major power one day that could become hostile to U.S. interests. Obviously this is not a near-term threat, but we need not look back even a century to see how rapidly and thoroughly allies can become enemies (and vice versa). For the United States, a strong relationship with Turkey acts as a hedge against any European superpower; even better, encouraging the Europeans to accept Turkey into the EU would prevent Europe from ever consolidating. The Turks are a proud people, and they would never allow Europe to consolidate into a form that could dictate policy to them. The second power is Iran. Tehran is hoping that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will give Iran a wealth of opportunities to push its influence there and further afield. But this won’t happen if the Turks have anything to say about it. Not only do the Arabs trust the Turks more than the Persians, but the Turks are already hammering out a deal with the Americans to give Ankara a hand in Kurdish northern Iraq. The return of Turkey to Mesopotamia — a former Ottoman province — would neatly block the most aggressive of Iran's ambitions. Finally, there are the Russians. Here things are a little stickier. Russia is far more consolidated than Europe and far more powerful than Iran. It is the power that most intimidates the Turks (and the Americans, for that matter) and therefore the one that Ankara is most leery of challenging. Not only is Turkey located close to Russia, but Ankara and Moscow share spheres of influence, especially in the Caucasus. In fact, until now the Turks have been looking for ways to avoid confrontation with Moscow. The U.S. problem is that Washington needs Turkey most to counter the power that the Turks least want to confront. Obama's way around this problem appears to be public recognition and statements of respect for Turkey's role, in the hope that — at a minimum — Ankara's relations with Moscow will not undermine the United States' strategy for Russia. From the Turkish point of view, Ankara cannot ask for a better position than its current one, with both the United States and Russia playing up its importance and seeking its favor. It is clear that the Obama administration is comfortable going public with the policy that Turkey is no longer "simply" a fellow NATO member state and Western ally; it has emerged as a geopolitical force in its own right. Turkey has weight, and the Americans have recognized that weight. The only question now is this: How will Turkey use it?

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