Turkey: A vital ally and crossroads nation

By Arthur I. Cyr, Special to The China Post

The selection of former foreign minister and practicing Muslim Abdullah Gul as the new president of Turkey by the parliament has led to fears of Islamic extremism and political instability. The new president’s wife Hayrunnisa publicly wears the religious headscarf, is formally banned in public buildings, and has become an iconic figure for the rise of religion in modern Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to an equally decisive victory with voters in parliamentary elections late last month.

Initial rejection of his foreign minister for the presidency was the principal spur for the people. In effect, a referendum was held on Muslim political leadership of the nation. 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 past half century, the generals have acted. At times, military intervention has been bloody. Top officers boycotted the installation of the new president. Religion understandably has been featured in much global media commentary on the election and the new president. Many outside observers, especially in Europe and the U.S., fixate on signs of Islamic extremism in Turkey. Terrorist efforts in Europe since 9/11 have achieved decidedly mixed results but constantly reinforce such anxiety. Turkey’s relative isolation within Europe is an addional concern. The European Union has turned Turkey’s application for membership into seemingly endless agony. No doubt concern about Islamic extremism contributes to caution. However, a more general, longstanding European prejudice against outside populations is undeniably involved. Condescension combined with inertia is reflected in the very slow motion of Brussels Eurocrats. In fact, developments within Turkey are generally reassuring, and also provide opportunities for U.S. foreign policy. The Turkish people’s commitment to representative government so far has proven an effective counter against al-Qaida and other extremist movements. Terrorist acts in Turkey have boomeranged, with considerable hostility toward those carrying out such criminal acts. There is anxiety about military intervention, but the AKP is politically moderate and so far has operated carefully to preclude a uniform crackdown. Turkey’s primary geostrategic importance, to the U.S. and other nations, is overriding. The government in 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 and potential oil and gas lines from the Caucasus. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, opposed by Ankara, has quite badly strained but not broken the bilateral alliance. Ankara-Washington cooperation is very strongly rooted. 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. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the U.N. military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves. This background is of great importance. Erdogan has threatened to invade northern Iraq if discussions involving Ankara, Baghdad and Washington to restrain Kurdish separatists are unsuccessful. The Bush administration should give the highest priority to avoiding direct clash with the nation which, along with Israel, is our most vital ally in the region. Washington has neglected Ankara far too long. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.