minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was expected to come to the White House
on Thursday for a meeting with President Barack Obama. Erdogan's visit
has now been postponed, and the decision to postpone comes on the heels
of the Turkish leader's high-profile visit to Iran this week.
When Erdogan does come to Washington, Obama would do well to listen to
his Turkish visitor about the current state of play in the
strategically vital Middle East. Erdogan will come to Washington not
only at a time of strong domestic support for his government and the
ruling Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party that
has dominated Turkish electoral politics in this decade, but also at a
time of increasing influence for Turkey in the broader Middle East --
while America's influence in the region continues to decline.
We spent several days in Turkey last week, where we heard Erdogan
describe his country's "zero problems" policy vis-à-vis its neighbors.
Regarding the Middle East more specifically, Erdogan's chief foreign
policy adviser explained to us that Turkey's approach to the region is
based on four principles: Engage all actors; respect the results of all
democratic elections (including those in the Palestinian territories in
2006 and Iran in 2009); increase cultural and economic relations among
countries in the region; and work with regional and international
organizations to maximize possibilities for engagement.
Turkey is, of course, a member of NATO and has long had a positive
economic and strategic relationship with Israel. But, working from
these four principles, the Erdogan government has in recent years
effected major improvements in Turkey's relations with a much wider
range of Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Iraq and Syria.
This opening to the broader Middle East has been very strongly in
Turkey's interest. Expanding trade and investment links to Iran, Iraq,
Syria and other regional states has boosted the growth of Turkey's
economy and reinforced its status as an "emerging market" of
international significance. Moreover, closer ties to Middle Eastern
countries, along with links to Hamas and Hezbollah, have made Ankara an
increasingly important player across a wide spectrum of regional
Erdogan wants to position Turkey to act as a mediator between its
Muslim neighbors and the West - including the United States, which
needs to move beyond nice speeches by Obama and undertake concrete
diplomatic initiatives to repair its standing in the Middle East. But
if Washington is too shortsighted to see the necessity of realigning
its relations with key Middle Eastern actors such as Iran, the Erdogan
government's opening to the broader Middle East gives Ankara a wider
array of strategic options for pursuing Turkish interests -- the essence
of successful diplomacy.
his visit to Tehran this week, Erdogan met with Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei -- a rare honor for a foreign leader. (In 2007, Russia's
then-President Vladimir Putin was also accorded a meeting with
Khamenei.) Turkey's expanding ties to the Islamic republic -- including
gas supply contracts and preliminary agreements for major upstream and
pipeline investment projects -- are essential to consolidating Turkey's
role as the leading transit "hub" for oil and gas supplies to Europe.
While in Iran, Erdogan said that he hopes Turkish-Iranian trade --
currently valued at roughly $10 billion -- will double by 2011 and
strongly supported Iranian participation in the Nabucco gas pipeline.
Meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Erdogan criticized
international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear activities as "unjust
and unfair" while other states maintain nuclear weapons.
These statements signal that Turkey may well move ahead and conclude
significant upstream and pipeline contracts in Iran despite U.S.
opposition. The U.S. position on this issue is detached from economic
reality. However much the Obama administration resists admitting it,
the Nabucco pipeline will almost certainly not be commercially viable
in the long run without Iranian gas volumes. In the end, Turkey's
approach to Iran does more for Western interests than does the U.S.
approach. Under the Erdogan government, Ankara is increasingly
confident that it can pursue its interests in the Middle East without
either succumbing to U.S. pressure or fundamentally sacrificing its
relationship with Washington. Erdogan's planned visit to the White
House strongly suggests that this confidence is eminently justified.
Israelis and some of Israel's friends in the United States decry what
they see as the expansion of Turkey's ties to other important Middle
Eastern states at the expense of Turkey's ties to Israel. Ankara has
indeed been sharply critical of Israel's military campaign in Gaza and
its role in the continuing humanitarian crisis there -- a posture
manifested in Erdogan's highly publicized walkout from a joint event
with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum and the
postponement of NATO military exercises in Turkey that would have
included Israeli forces. But criticism of Turkey from pro-Israel
circles misses an important reality: At this point, Israel arguably
needs a relationship with Turkey more than Turkey needs a relationship
There is an important lesson here for the Obama administration. America
no longer has the economic and political wherewithal to dictate
strategic outcomes in the Middle East. Increasingly, if Washington
wants to promote and protect U.S. interests in this critical region, it
will have to do so through serious diplomacy -- by respecting evolving
balances of power and accommodating the legitimate interests of others
so that U.S. interests will be respected. Turkey's Middle East policy
provides a valuable model of what that kind of diplomacy looks like.