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Rediscovering Turkey

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
June 21, 2006


Turkey, for decades a bulwark against the Soviet Union, today poses serious challenges for U.S. policymakers. It refused the United States crucial military aid during the invasion of Iraq, its public has some of the most negative attitudes towards the United States in the world, and it maintains positive ties with both Iran and Syria. Ankara also reached out to the new Hamas government even as the West sought to isolate the group for its refusal to recognize Israel or denounce terrorist attacks. Washington mistakenly left relations with Turkey on "autopilot," says Ian Lesser, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. With Soviet containment no longer the centerpiece of security policy, Lesser writes, the two countries have failed to establish a solid footing for dealing with an array of regional problems (Turkish Policy Quarterly).

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has caused the main disturbance, but there are a number of other fronts where Turkey resents U.S. neglect, perceived or real. Washington needs to seize the initiative and help resolve issues of deep concern in Ankara, says a new Council Special Report. Among the recommended steps: establishing a regular trilateral dialogue involving the United States, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurds; assuming a lead role in settling the dispute over Cyprus; and more actively supporting Turkey's EU candidacy. Steven Cook, one of the report's authors, says in this podcast there is a "real disconnect" between Ankara and Washington over developments in northern Iraq, and recommends regular dialogue to help clarify their positions on Kurdish activities in the region.

The time is ripe to establish a new footing. The two sides agreed to prepare a paper on a common strategic vision during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in April, and it is said to be nearly complete (Turkish Daily News). Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is to visit Washington next month to discuss the document, as well as efforts to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which reportedly uses bases in northern Iraq to mount attacks in Turkey. U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman earlier this week sought to assure Turkey about U.S. cooperation, saying in a Washington Institute speech that the United States remains committed to putting "an end to this hateful terrorist organization."

More active U.S. diplomacy with Turkey could also ease testy relations with Europe just as accession talk heats up. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently rankled Brussels (Reuters) by saying he would rather see talks suspended than make concessions to Cyprus, a new EU member. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has pressed Turkey to expedite reforms, especially on the treatment of minorities. The Economist says this is a crucial hour for bringing Turkey back on course toward European integration, and cites worrying signals from Ankara, including a more openly Islamist foreign policy by the governing party.

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