Can Obama Keep Eastward-Looking Turkey On Side?

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Max Rossi / REUTERS

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

One of Barack Obama's first overseas trips as President was to Turkey. When he visited in April he focused on the significant role the country — mainly Muslim, officially secular, and a member of NATO — has to play in the Middle East. Heralding "a model partnership," Obama said Ankara had an important part to play in global peace. "Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together," he told Turkish MPs in parliament.

The eight months since have been a mixed bag. Yes, Turkey has agreed to diplomatic normalization with neighbor and historic foe Armenia, and announced plans to end a two-decade war against Kurdish rebels that threatens to spill over into Iraq. But both developments have yet to be formalized. And Ankara has stirred hostility against Israel, a traditional ally, and its pursuit of closer commercial and political ties with the Muslim world, including Iran, has raised fears of a drift eastwards.

That trend is sure to be the undertone during discussions between Obama and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, when the two leaders meet in Washington to discuss a high-stakes list of concerns topped by Afghanistan and Iran. "The U.S. side needs to impress diplomatically on Prime Minister Erdogan how much his anti-Western populist rhetoric damages Turkey's position with its key partners and pro-Turkey constituencies in Washington and Brussels," analyst Hugh Pope wrote in a recent paper for the Transatlantic Academy.

Before leaving for the U.S, Erdogan said Turkey was already "doing what it can" in Afghanistan, suggesting the Turks will resist Obama's call to commit more troops. Turkey has 1,750 soldiers in the Hindu Kush on a strictly humanitarian, noncombat mission that includes building roads and schools and patrolling Kabul. Ankara is wary of fighting fellow Muslims in a region with which it also has historic ties. "A midway solution could be for Turkey to increase its troops but not engage in warfare in southern provinces like Kandahar and Helmand," says Cengiz Candar, a commentator for the Radikal newspaper.

There are also differences over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Although Turkish diplomats insist that Ankara is opposed to any development of nuclear weapons in neighboring Iran, Erdogan has in recent months strengthened diplomatic and trade ties with Tehran, which is a key gas supplier to Turkey. The Turks abstained last month in a U.N. vote condemning Iran's nuclear activities, despite China and Russia's support for it. Erdogan has also criticized Western leaders for turning a blind eye to Israel, widely seen as the Middle East's only nuclear power — albeit an undeclared one. Turkey's relations with Israel soured during Israel's invasion of Gaza last year. At a Davos forum in January, an irate Erdogan accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of "murdering children" and stormed out. The two countries, historically strong strategic allies, have since lurched from one crisis to another.

Despite the potential for disagreements, the Obama Administration considers Turkey a crucial ally in a region riddled with conflict. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a key role in ensuring a last-minute deal in August between Turkey and Armenia aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations and eventually opening their long-closed border. That agreement is one of the U.S. Administration's chief foreign policy successes to date. Obama, who shied away from a campaign pledge to recognize the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman soldiers as genocide in favor of supporting a bilateral peace process, will press Erdogan to ratify the deal in parliament as soon as possible.

The two are also likely to discuss Turkey's decades-old bid to become part of the European Union, an ambition that Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government appears to have placed on the back burner. The Prime Minister and his ministers have racked up dozens of visits to the Middle East and gulf this year, shoring up trade deals and political ties. They have visited Brussels many fewer times. In part, this is Europe's fault. Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicholas Sarkozy have made little secret of their distaste for Turkey's eventual membership. "The U.S. must ... convince Erdogan that explicitly resurrecting the E.U. goal is vital, and that recent E.U. coldness towards Turkey is not forever," says Pope. That sentiment would mean more if it came from Europe.