Turkey, a vital U.S. ally, is often overlooked. Terrorist attacks there have backfired against al-Qaida, but this news has been overshadowed by events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Troubled states upstage those merely having some trouble. This month Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party scored a significant parliamentary election victory from the people. The AKP is a religion-based party, and elsewhere in the Islamic world such a victory could spell trouble. In Turkey, however, this could strengthen our bilateral alliance — as long as Washington is smart.
The selection in 2007 of former foreign minister and practicing Moslem Abdullah Gul as the president by the parliament led to fears of Islamic extremism. The president’s wife Hayrunnisa proudly wears the Islamic headscarf, formally banned in public buildings, and has become an icon for the rise of religion in secular modern Turkey.
Erdogan led the AKP to a significant victory in parliamentary elections in the summer of 2007. Initial rejection of his foreign minister for the presidency was the principal spur to go to the people.
Since the successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been constitutionally strictly secular. The army serves as watchdog to keep religion at bay. Four times in the past half-century, the generals have acted. At times, military intervention has been bloody. Top officers boycotted the installation of the new president.
Many outside observers, especially in Europe and the U.S., fixate on signs of Islamic extremism in Turkey.
Terrorist efforts in Europe since 9/11 have achieved decidedly mixed results but constantly reinforce such anxiety.
Turkey’s relative isolation within Europe adds to concern. The European Union has turned Turkey’s application for membership into seemingly endless agony. No doubt concern about Islamic extremism contributes to caution.
However, more general Euro-prejudice undeniably is involved. Condescension combined with inertia is reflected in the very slow motion of Brussels Eurocrats.
In fact, Turkish developments overall have been reassuring. The people remain committed to representative government. To date, terrorist acts in Turkey have boomeranged, with considerable hostility toward those carrying out such criminal acts. There is anxiety about military intervention, but the AKP has been moderate so far, operating carefully to preclude a uniformed crackdown.
Turkey’s primary geostrategic importance, to the U.S. and other nations, is overriding. Turkey commands vital sea and land routes, including the Strait of Bosporus, which can carry oil and gas from the Caucasus. Governments in Ankara have in the past worked effectively with Israel, in the context of cooperation with Arab states.
Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Turkey has been actively engaged in Afghanistan, including major military command responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the UN military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.
This background is important given Turkey-U.S. policy frictions. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara. Attacks by anti-Ankara Kurdish terrorists based in Iraq have led to Turkish military retaliation. Syrian refugees streaming into Turkey add another potential source of war.
The Obama administration has given priority to rebuilding recently frayed relations with Turkey, which along with Israel is our most vital ally in the region. Americans should support the effort.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.