How the West Lost Turkey

Is the West's increasingly loveless marriage with Turkey finally headed toward acrimonious divorce?

Lately, some on the right in Washington have fretted that Turkey's religiously oriented Justice and Development Party, the AKP, will distance the country from its Western allies, eroding secularism as it seeks tighter bonds within the Middle East. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed some very sensitive Western buttons: He has dismissed concerns over Iran's nuclear program, for instance, and canceled a military exercise with Israel, holding one with Syria instead.

These moves leave plenty to worry about -- including the possibility that the United States will make things worse by worrying about all the wrong things. But Erdogan's decisions do not augur the rise of an Islamist foreign policy in Turkey. The more troubling reality is that they are the inevitable outcome of long-brewing domestic trends. In limiting cooperation with Israel and improving relations with neighbors like Iran and Syria, Erdogan is playing to Turkish leftists and rightists, secularists and Islamists. He's pandering to voters who already dislike the United States and Israel while cleverly, if cynically, pursuing Turkey's national interests. A good politician from any other party would do the same.

Understanding Erdogan's political calculus starts with understanding that in Turkey anger at the West is near universal. Where Islamists see a global crusade against their faith, secular leftists see global capitalism and U.S. imperialism. Many Islamists think Israel and the United States are secretly working with the Turkish military to overthrow the democratically elected Islamist government. Conversely, many secularists think Israel and the United States are using the AKP to weaken Turkey by undermining its secular identity. According to a recent poll, 72 percent of people in Turkey believe foreign powers are working to break apart their country. It's little comfort that they disagree on how.

Turks themselves were never enthusiastic about their country's relationship with Israel. The military was, though, and for much of Turkey's recent history it controlled the country's foreign policy. Now, in an increasingly democratic Turkey with more power centers when it comes to foreign affairs, the temptation for politicians to pander to anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and anti-Washington sentiment is hard to resist -- as seen in Erdogan's recent statements.

The more impatient Washington gets with this dynamic, the worse it will be. Suggesting, for instance, that it wouldn't be so bad if the Turkish army were still running the show just plays into the hands of millions of anti-American conspiracy theorists -- who are surprisingly attentive to statements from think tanks and Capitol Hill. It also feeds the illusion that the Turkish military will remain reliably pro-American. Older, higher-ranking officers continue to work closely with their U.S. counterparts. But younger officers who grew up viewing the United States as their enemy are rising through the ranks.

Fortunately, Erdogan's friendship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoys less popular support. And though moderates decry the friendship, fringe rightists and leftists applaud it. Last June, both moderate Islamists and moderate secularists embraced the Iranian protesters as kindred spirits. To secularists, many of whom view Erdogan as little more than a Turkish Ahmadinejad, the protesters were fighting against theocracy. To Islamists, the protesters were fighting for democracy, with the ayatollahs cast in the authoritarian role of the Turkish military. After President Abdullah Gul and Erdogan rushed to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his victory, several columnists in the reliably pro-government Zaman newspaper broke with the party line to condemn the brutality on the streets of Tehran.

Meanwhile, more partisan voices on both extremes denounced the protesters as American or Zionist puppets. A secular columnist, for instance, described Neda Agha-Soltan -- the protesting young woman whose death was seen around the world on YouTube -- as a militant in George Soros's army who had removed the cross from her neck to pose as a protester. An Islamist paper claimed she was still wearing the cross when she was shot.

In time, democratization will help discredit the radicals on both sides. Until then, Washington's best partners remain those moderates who, whatever they think of the United States, at the very least share a mutually comprehensible view of the world.

There are also powerful economic and strategic interests driving Turkey's foreign policy of which watchers in Washington should take better notice. In recent years, a vibrantly capitalist Turkey has bolstered its regional trade to great effect, looking for markets not just in the Middle East but also in old enemies such as Armenia. Lifting visa requirements with Syria in September, for instance, has already been a boon to businessmen in southern Turkey. Russia is now the country's largest trading partner, and the Wall Street Journal reports that Turkey's trade with Sudan has tripled since 2006. Iran, meanwhile, is a major source of cheap natural gas, keeping Turkey's economy growing. How shocked can the United States be if that makes Ahmadinejad look a little less despotic in Ankara?

Turkey is acutely aware that economic success is crucial to securing European Union membership. Indeed, Ankara has promoted its EU candidacy by claiming that it will help expand Europe's influence in the Middle East; the AKP has offered Turkey's services as a mediator between Syria and Israel as well as between Iran and the United States. Turkish politicians and intellectuals are quick to point out that they will be more useful to their allies if they are also on good terms with their allies' enemies. Being a bridge between East and West, they say, requires having a footing in the East as well.

Yet in trying to turn its dual identity into a strategic asset, Turkey runs the perpetual risk of finding itself rejected by both sides -- too Muslim and Middle Eastern for the Europeans, and too secular and pro-American for the Middle Easterners. Europeans might be more tolerant than Americans when it comes to entreaties to Iran and Iran's criticism of Israel, but only up to a point. Recently, the AKP seems to have realized it went too far for EU tastes in preparing to welcome Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Istanbul. Meanwhile, Turkey's relations with the Arab world have always been worse than many people realize. The Ottoman Empire, for one, is not fondly remembered by many of its former subjects. Turkey opposed Algerian independence in 1955 and almost attacked Syria in 1998. With the Cold War over and a resolution to Turkey's perennial Kurdish problem in sight, the general consensus in Ankara is that it's high time Turkey patched things up with the East as well.

The hostility Turks feel toward their allies is alarming. Their desire for peace and prosperity in the region is not. Ultimately, the challenge for Washington is to keep this distinction in mind when deciding how worried to get over developments in Turkey. Erdogan's challenge is even harder. He has to get what he can from Turkey's new friends in the East while also keeping -- and, if necessary, publicly defending -- Turkey's friends in the West.



Iran's Soft War

The Obama administration shouldn't give up on embattled Iranian democrats. Here's how America can help the Green Revolution succeed.

Iran's government has used violence, intimidation, and incarceration to keep the country's opposition at bay since the flawed election there last June. Now, the news trickling out of Tehran this week suggests that a more sophisticated ideological effort is underway -- the "soft war" reported in the New York Times. This goes further than closing opposition news outlets and now reportedly includes placing Basij militia instructors in elementary schools, more media controlled by the country's Revolutionary Guard, and expanded surveillance of the Internet.

Iran's leaders claim they are facing nothing less than a Western-directed "color revolution," just as Russia's allies did in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 swept the streets with democratic fervor. But the Orange Revolution was a genuine expression of popular anger, not a plot orchestrated from Washington or Brussels. It was however, aided by diplomacy. Western diplomats can draw on experience learned in Kiev to help the "green movement" in Tehran. The United States and particularly Europe should be doing much more to engage and cultivate this newly vocal "other Iran," sustaining its calls for a democratically chosen government.

Despite obvious differences, the Ukraine of the 1990s had some similarities to today's Iran in its nondemocratic character. Athough Ukraine held regular elections during that period, the U.S. NGO Freedom House noted in 2001 that fewer than 25 percent of Ukrainians considered their country a democracy. Reform-minded politicians had been ousted, and civil liberties were trampled. 

But the situation began to evolve in 2002. For the first time, Ukrainian voters expressed strong support for the opposition in parliamentary elections, despite irregularities, government tampering, and violence against reformers. Following that, Washington and European governments joined the Ukrainian opposition to apply pressure for fair and independently observed elections. Election-monitoring organizations also helped amplify the message. Diplomacy helped transform the next election into a matter of international, not just domestic, concern. This should be a key goal in Iran.

As part of the Ukraine initiative, Washington helped forge an effective multilateral alliance with the European Union. Ukraine's neighbor, Poland, played a pivotal role, having had its own experience with democratic transition.

So by the time flawed elections occurred again in December 2004, the opposition had lines of communication to the international community. Exit polling cast doubt on the credibility of official voting results. And though change came from within, supplemental pressure from outside played a key role in supporting nonviolent resistance to an unpopular regime whose time had passed.

Of course, Iran is not Ukraine. Unlike the latter, Iran does not belong to a regional organization such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the European Union, nor does it have any desire to join such a grouping. Creative diplomacy can find similar pressure points to apply, nonetheless.

One effective strategy borrowed from the Ukraine experience, for example, would involve foreign heads of state convening round tables of the various domestic parties with foreign mediators. In Ukraine's case, this meant Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski engaging directly with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and bringing together opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. For Iran, possible candidates might include French President Nicolas Sarkozy launching a round-table discussion with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and candidates from the last election. This is not implausible if it is pursued seriously; Tehran has conducted talks repeatedly with European governments on a number of sensitive issues over the past decade, and this precedent could provide impetus for current talks. Despite its actions against the opposition, Tehran would be hard-pressed to spurn a call from a major European head of government, and the call itself would aid the voices of reform.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso could meanwhile rally governments represented in Brussels to support a meaningful diplomatic initiative, which includes a discussion of election legitimacy. As Iran's largest trading partner, with some $35 billion in trade last year, the European Union has considerable economic influence over Tehran. European leaders can also seek the involvement of countries like Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states in a dialogue with Tehran.

There is one political obstacle in all of this: Conventional wisdom holds that discussing Iranian governance would only complicate ongoing nuclear-related negotiations. But history shows the opposite can be true. Some of the West's greatest strides in arms control with the former Soviet Union, for example, came in the 1980s, when the West was pushing the country hardest on human rights issues.

There is no time to be lost.  Even if new elections in Iran are far off, now is the time to begin laying a foundation by preparing for election monitoring and giving the Iranian opposition an open channel to the outside world.