The Turkish-American Romance

Stephen Kinzer
Monday 6 April 2009 17.00 BST

Obama is right to view Turkey as a key world power.

But both sides still have issues they need to address

President Barack Obama’s decision to pay an official visit to Turkey on
the 77th day of his presidency was a major step in Turkey’s emergence
as a regional power. This will be one of the big geopolitical stories
of the coming decades.

Obama came to Ankara with a short-term agenda. He would like to see
Turkey contribute more to the Nato mission in Afghanistan and also
wants to withdraw American soldiers and equipment from Iraq through
Turkish territory. But that was not all he had on his mind. Larger
reasons led him to make Turkey the first Muslim country he visited
as president.

Turkey is more democratic today than it has ever been, as last month’s
local elections showed. Its economy is strong, fuelled in part by
money from Gulf state investors who consider it the safest place in
the neighbourhood. Most intriguing of all, it is becoming a major
diplomatic broker.

Turkey has developed a remarkable ability to win the trust of
governments and opposition groups across a wide and turbulent
region. It has warm relations with both Russia and Georgia, with
Israel and Hamas, with Iran and the United States. Its counsel is
valued in countries as varied as Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Turks have found a positive approach to diplomacy in a region where
not much is positive. They promote dialogue and conciliation, and
reject threats, demands and bombing raids. Obama’s visit suggests
that he likes that approach.

The newly invigorated Turkish-American relationship may take an
interesting twist soon. Obama promised during his campaign that
if elected, he would officially proclaim the slaughter of Ottoman
Armenians in 1915 to have been an act of genocide. Such a proclamation
would outrage many Turks and could choke off the Turkish-American
romance he is kindling. Obama is now looking for a way to break his
campaign promise.

How could he honourably do that? With the help of his new Turkish

Political circles in Ankara and Istanbul are abuzz with speculation
that the long-awaited breakthrough between Turkey to Armenia may be at
hand. It would include a reopening of their land border, closed since
1993, re-establishment of diplomatic relations and establishment of
a scholarly commission to study the killings of 1915.

If this happens before 24 April, when Obama is scheduled to issue his
promised statement on the 1915 events, he would have every reason to
avoid the inflammatory term "genocide". After all, he could argue,
if these two longtime enemies have kissed and made up, why should an
outside power sow discord between them?

This breakthrough, if it happens, would be a decisive step toward
reducing regional tension. It would also be another sign of Turkey’s
maturing diplomatic role. Turkey would finally have achieved its
stated first goal in the region: zero problems with neighbours. That
would place it in a good position to reach for more ambitious goals,
for a grand regional strategy.

In a new book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,
the strategic prognosticator George Friedman says Turkey is on its
way to becoming one of the world’s key powers. A map in the book
captioned "Turkish sphere of influence 2050" looks strikingly like
a map of the Ottoman empire.

"Turkey is not isolated and tied down; it has multiple directions in
which it can move," Friedman asserts. "Most important, it does not
represent a challenge to American interests and is therefore not
constantly confronted with an American threat. This means it does
not have to devote resources to blocking the United States. With
its economy surging, it will likely soon re-emerge in its old role,
as the dominant force in the region."

Resolving the long dispute with Armenia would bring Turkey an important
step closer to this position of influence. The next step would be
find a compromise with Kurdish nationalism. Turkey has emerged as
such a deft broker on the international stage that its failure to
resolve the Kurdish problem within its own borders seems increasingly
paradoxical. If Turkey can meet these challenges and a few others, it
is poised for a very good century. That makes it, as Obama evidently
realises, an excellent partner for the United States.