That's the theory, anyway. But Ankara and Washington may well end up on opposite sides when it comes to the Assad regime. The Turks have been noticeably quiet about U.S. and Israeli allegations that Syria has either transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah or trained Hezbollah fighters to use them in Syria. What will the Turks do if Israel launches a preventive strike against those missiles, now believed to be on the Syrian side of the border near the Bekaa Valley -- or if the Israel Defense Forces take the fight to Lebanon, where there are 367 Turkish soldiers serving in the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Lebanon? Whatever the exact scenario, conflict along Israel's northern border seems increasingly likely. In that event, Washington will no doubt endorse Israel's right to self-defense -- and Ankara will not.
Perhaps the biggest issue separating the United States and Turkey is Iran. There is a full-blown controversy brewing over exactly what the Obama administration communicated to Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva before the two leaders traveled to Tehran in May. There, Lula and Erdogan hammered out a deal that would shift 1,200 kilograms of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). So far, Washington's explanation of what it did and did not tell Ankara and Brasilia is rather weak -- a perplexing lapse of communication and coordination for an administration that puts a premium on these virtues.
Regardless of the Obama administration's mistakes, the Turkish-Brazilian deal demonstrates just how far apart Washington and Ankara are on Iran. The Obama administration sees the TRR agreement as yet another Iranian effort to split Washington, its allies in Europe, the Chinese, and the Russians, thereby forestalling a new round of U.N.-mandated sanctions, all while the Iranians continue to enrich uranium. The Turks think the deal is a promising start to the painstaking task of moving Washington and Tehran toward broader negotiations.
The easy temptation is to blame creeping Islamization for Turkey's foreign-policy shift. There is no denying that there is an ideological component to much of Erdogan's rhetoric, especially when it comes to Israel. However, the prime minister is not the architect of Ankara's foreign policy; Foreign Minister Davutoglu is the man responsible for the country's new international activism. Bookish, soft-spoken and extremely smart, Davutoglu is not an Islamist. Rather, he correctly perceived the role Turkey can play in a much-changed world. The structural changes resulting from the end of the Cold War, Europe's continuing rebuff of Turkey, and the economic opportunities to the country's south, east, and north have driven Davutoglu's thinking, not the Quran. Moreover, despite the bitter political battle being played out in Turkey over the country's political trajectory, there is general agreement across the political spectrum on the direction of Turkish foreign policy. Other Turkish governments might have been more cautious about the TRR deal, but they certainly would be seeking to maintain good relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention Russia.
The Obama administration has yet to grapple with the ways the structural changes in the international system have affected U.S.-Turkey relations. All the talk about strategic cooperation, model partnership, and strategic importance cannot mask the fundamental shift at hand. The stark reality is that while Turkey and the United States are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast becoming competitors. Whereas the United States seeks to remain the predominant power in the region and, as such, wants to maintain a political order that makes it easier for Washington to achieve its goals, Turkey clearly sees things differently. The Turks are willing to bend the regional rules of the game to serve Ankara's own interests. If the resulting policies serve U.S. goals at the same time, good. If not, so be it.
Moreover, Ankara's approach has proved enormously popular in Turkey and among average Arabs. This is why Erdogan seems all too willing to discuss Turkey's newly influential role in the Middle East at even the most mundane ribbon-cutting events, from Istanbul to the Armenian border. Indeed, it is abundantly clear that Erdogan and his party believe they benefit domestically from the position Turkey has staked out in the Middle East. Yet, it is lost on Washington that the demands of domestic Turkish politics now trump the need to maintain good relations with the United States.
Given the mythology that surrounds the relationship, the divergence between Washington and Ankara has proved difficult to accept. Once policymakers recognize what is really happening, Washington and Ankara can get on with the job of managing the decline in ties with the least possible damage. Obama's goal should be to develop relations with Turkey along the same lines the United States has with Brazil or Thailand or Malaysia. Those relations are strong in some areas, but fall short of strategic alliances. "Frenemy" might be too harsh a term for such an arrangment, but surely "model partnership" is a vast overstatement. It's time to recognize reality.