When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, villagers in a remote Turkish province made headlines by sacrificing 44 sheep to celebrate his victory. Those villagers will feel their celebration was vindicated by Washington's announcement that Obama will travel to Turkey next month an event being hailed here as proof of Turkey's elevated strategic role in the foreign policy of the new Administration.
"There has never been such a high-profile period in U.S.-Turkish relations before," says columnist Cengiz Candar, referring to Obama's planned trip, which follows a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Ankara last weekend. "Never in history has a U.S. President visited Turkey so soon after taking office." (See pictures of cultures coexisting in Istanbul)
Ties between Washington and Ankara had become increasingly fraught under the Bush administration, never fully recovering from the Turkish parliament's refusal in 2003 to allow U.S. troops to use Turkey as a launching pad into neighboring Iraq. During the subsequent war, U.S. popularity fell to an all-time low in Turkey. But Obama appears to view Turkey a predominantly Muslim but officially secular country straddling Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East as having a key part to play in his effort to heal U.S. relations with the Islamic world. An increasingly assertive regional power, Turkey has significant influence in a number of conflict zones critical to U.S. foreign policy objectives, ranging from relations between Israel and its neighbors to the Caucasus, Iraq and Iran. "The new administration is aware of Turkey's importance," said Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan after meeting Clinton. "Turkish-American relations have entered a new era."
Since last May, Ankara has hosted several rounds of secret peace talks between Syria and Israel. It also played a role in helping secure the tenuous cease-fire that ended hostilities in Gaza earlier this year. Turkey has also been approached by Tehran to mediate in its standoff with Washington over Iran's nuclear program. A day after Secretary Clinton's Ankara visit, a high-profile Turkish delegation flew to Tehran, with whose regime Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's moderate Islamist-rooted government enjoys good relations.
And while Turkey would not allow U.S. troops to transit its territory on the way in to Iraq, it has said it will allow them to pass through Turkey on their way out, in line with President Obama's withdrawal plans. Ankara may play an even larger role in Afghanistan, another key focus of the Obama Administration. Turkey already has about 800 troops on the ground as part of the NATO mission there, and could potentially provide more the Obama Administration is currently struggling to convince other European NATO allies to send reinforcements. Washington could also seek Ankara's help in persuading some its neighbors to allow NATO to run supply lines for its Afghanistan mission through their territories.
Turkey's rising star in Obama's Washington could also help keep the country's democratization process on track. Elected twice on a platform of change, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has been faltering on democratic reforms in recent months. Having been frustrated in its efforts to expedite its acceptance into the European Union, Turkey's government has instead put greater emphasis on looking east, burnishing its influence in the Islamic world. The Kurdish conflict in the southeast, which spills over into Iraq, remains unresolved and reforms have stalled, while a recent U.S. State Department human rights report cites police misconduct, allegations of torture and limits on freedom of expression as problems in Turkey.
By dangling the prospect of a high-profile strategic role for Ankara, Obama can help ensure that Turkey gets back on track on issues that matter: E.U. membership, fully addressing the grievances of the country's large Kurdish minority and better democracy. And a more stable Turkey can only strengthen its position as a moderate role model for the countries to its east.