'T' time for the BRICs?

David Ignatius's excellent column in today's Washington Post, "Obama's Turkish alliance," focuses important attention on one of the most important trends reshaping the current Middle East -- the rise of Turkey as a regional power broker. That rise, crafted by the country's driven, high-strung Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the important collaboration of his capable Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is underscored by a point Ignatius hints at in the article.

While Obama has made building ties with the world's emerging powers a centerpiece of his foreign policy (beginning, as Ignatius notes, with a stop Obama made in Turkey on his first trip as president), there have been hiccups along the way. Among the most notable of these was the Turkish-Brazilian effort to help broker a deal with Iran regarding fuel for its nuclear program. The United States was unhappy with what one administration official described to me at the time as the "naive freelancing" of the two countries, and it produced a chill. Ignatius's article notes that while a chill followed, a forthright discussion between Obama and Erdogan helped put the relationship back on firmer footing. What he also suggests is that another driver of the restoration of better relations was Turkey's increasing centrality to issues of great importance to the United States -- from the transfer of power in Iraq to Kurdistan to Iran to relations with Syria to relations with Israel to combating terror to diplomatic and political maneuvering surrounding upheaval in the Arab world. This broad agenda of intersecting interests has not only given Turkey great leverage with the United States, but also given it the latitude to survive disagreements like that over Iran (or those associated with its chill with Israel over the Gaza flotilla) in ways that aren't typical in such emerging-power relations with the United States. Indeed, the Brazil-U.S. relationship has taken considerably longer to recover precisely because there are fewer areas of urgent concern in which the United States has felt Brazil plays a central role.

(Fortunately, as a result of the deft foreign-policy stewardship of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her strong Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, and the especially effective work of U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon, the U.S.-Brazil relationship has also slowly gotten back on track with a Rousseff visit to the U.S. planned around the time of the upcoming Summit of the Americas now being discussed between the two governments.)

Turkey not only has an indispensible role to play on a host of issues important to the United States, but the country's leaders have also been willing to take diplomatic risks to play that role. While this has led to tensions with the United States and severe strains with the Netanyahu government, it has also led to much greater credibility for the Turks in interactions with other governments in the region. In particular, some in the Egyptian leadership have seemed intrigued by the idea that a Turkish-Egyptian partnership could counterbalance the traditional leadership role played by the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia. And many in the West feel Turkey is an indispensible partner if more direct pressure is to be applied on the Syrian regime.

Recently, Turkey has reported disappointing economic results. This is hardly a surprise -- being at the intersection of a swooning European economy and the churning Middle East creates as many problems as it does advantages at the moment. But Turkey is not alone among emerging powers struggling in economic headwinds at the moment. In the past couple weeks, gloomy numbers have come out of China, India, and Brazil as well. And Russia has taken a hit due to the cloud of suspicion hanging over its most recent elections. Which is to say that, these days, none of the BRICs offer an entirely sunny picture. The comparison is made for obvious reasons. While Turkey is not as big or as economically promising as the BRICs, it is increasingly seen as a candidate to be a member of that class of vitally important emerging powers because it has the one advantage that real-estate investors everywhere appreciate the most: location, location and location. And now, it has at the helm a couple of crafty, ambitious leaders who have grasped that the ultimate power magnifier is the willingness to use the influence you have. If the BRICs were conceived in terms of both economic and political power, Turkey arguably would already be an official member of the group. And, effectively, it already is, joining in many collaborative undertakings with the other emerging powers.

It may not be good news for Israel or for Bashar al-Assad or for Greece or for the Kurds ... but Turkey's reemergence as a powerbroker in the world's toughest neighborhood looks likely to continue for years to come.  

Aris Messinis

David Rothkopf

The president in Kansas: A big speech that ended with a bigger question mark

If the first several years of any presidency can be characterized as a search by the chief executive for his identity as a leader, then it may be said that Barack Obama's search reached a milestone yesterday. He found a voice in Osawatomie, Kansas. He framed the political debate in America in a way that showed understanding and compassion. Whether this leads to an actual change in his behavior as a leader remains to be seen.

The president gave a powerful and impassioned speech that essentially turned on the idea that is fueling movement on both ends of the political spectrum in America today: that the US is no longer the land of opportunity that it once was, that powerful interests have corrupted the system and tilted the playing field in their direction. He assailed the inequality that has become the system's signature for the past three decades and laid claim to the role of being the champion of the country's forgotten, shrinking, strained middle class. Rebuffing forcefully the central Republican tenet that to speak of these problems is to foment class war, Obama asserted that seeking fairness is not class war but rather is the American way.

Call it canny politics or simply a fair characterization of America's central challenge of the moment, the president stood up for the majority of Americans and effectively if not explicitly turned the argument back on the Republicans: there is class war in America and it has been waged successfully by elites at the expense of Main Street since the Reagan era. The cant that lower taxes for companies and the rich would somehow benefit someone other than companies and the rich was called out for the fraud that it is.

Going further, the president advanced his current agenda -- notably the extension of the payroll tax cut --- as a means of addressing this problem. This was where the speech, for all its promise and the undeniable quality of its delivery, raised the most questions. The problem was well framed. The call to action was clear. But the prescriptive portion of the address was so weak as to make one wonder anew as to whether the president was capable of or inclined to the major adjustments he persuasively argued were necessary.

The speech reminded us both of candidate Obama, the champion of change, and of President Obama, who has been tentative in his challenges to the status quo ... or worse. The speech in Kansas yesterday demanded the end of the Bush tax cuts, a major investment in American infrastructure, the embrace of sweeping changes to ensure economic vitality such as those proposed by the Simpson Bowles Commission, real aid for American homeowners, and Wall Street reforms with far more scope and far sharper teeth than Dodd Frank.

Will the man who delivered yesterday's speech enter a new phase of his presidency in which he is willing to go to the mat for such changes, alienate rich donors, offend some in the Wall Street-Washington establishment with whom he has been close throughout his career? Is he the gutsy guy who broke through racial barriers in America and defied the Democratic political establishment on his way up? Or is he the professor, the man in the bubble at the White House, the world's most conservative liberal? A change agent or a weathervane?

As with many Obama speeches and even with his books, this one was a great source of hope, inspiring even. But at this point in America's existence we don't need a president who sees hope as audacious. We need one who sees it as a risk. We don't need change we can believe in. We need change we can see.

Yesterday could have been a watershed and the beginning of the president's march to a second term. Or ... if in the months ahead we continue to see timidity with regard to the big reforms we need, cat-and-mouse games with the Hill, the White House negotiating with itself before it capitulates to the right on the Hill ... then yesterday might be seen as the last great speech of a man who only had an opening act, a guy who could set the  stage, raise expectations, and then have to step aside to let someone else deliver the goods.

Julie Denesha/Getty Images