As the NATO summiteers descend upon Istanbul, the city of Constantine, Justinian, Mehmet the Conqueror, and Süleyman the Magnificent, one hopes that in between drinking sweet apple tea and noshing on baklava while looking over the Golden Horn, the American diplomats, military men, and bureaucrats will raise their eyes and look at the vibrant, interesting country around them. Turkey and the United States share tremendous interests, but their relationship has recently hit some shoals, though not yet run aground. Both countries must take a step back from day-to-day annoyances and take the long view. Turkey could be a major ally of the United States in the Middle East, along the lines of Japan or Korea in Asia, or Germany in Cold War Europe; and the United States represents a way for the Turkish Republic to integrate more deeply into the West in parallel (or even as an alternative to) its efforts to join the European Union.
The last major U.S.-Turkish diplomatic venture, the negotiations to allow the Fourth Infantry Division to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, ended in pointless acrimony and has led to frustration on both sides. The Turks have felt relatively marginalized in American decision-making in Iraq, and Americans have nursed grudges against the Turks.
American officials must not allow the failure of negotiations to poison the relations between us, as the French foreign ministry's machinations have poisoned relations between Washington and the Elysée. In this instance, tactical amnesia may be called for, given Turkey's strategic and ideological importance in the ongoing war on terror, and its underlying project of discrediting radical, totalitarian Islamic-flavored ideology.
The Turks, by contrast, must resist the urge to pander, for domestic political reasons, to the elements of the AK Party's constituency who might sympathize with the Islamist critique of politics. They should do as much as possible to raise the profile of those religious and political thinkers within Turkey who are attempting to reconcile secular government and Muslim belief. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated on numerous occasions that this is precisely the task his party has set itself, creating a "Muslim Democrat" model along the lines of Europe's Christian Democrat model of the early and middle twentieth century.
So what can be done to improve relations? The United States can afford to be generous, and should be. First, Turkey desperately needs economic assistance, but has no desire for more IMF or World Bank "aid" of the type which has worsened their plight. After meeting President Bush, Erdogan told the press, "I proposed to President Bush that they take us into NAFTA." We should take him up on it through a bilateral trade agreement, or as the first step in creating a transatlantic free-trade area. Not only would such an agreement boost Turkey's frail economy but it would explicitly demonstrate the friendship and solidarity between the United States and a Muslim country at a time when our enemies paint us as implacable enemies of Muslims.
Our second gift should be military aid. Not only is the Turkish military a critical institution in its domestic affairs, but the Turkish Armed Forces are the second largest force in NATO after the U.S. military. The Turkish general staff has a short wish-list of equipment and financial assistance: utility and navy helicopters, ship-development programs, a regional missile defense system, a cancellation of some debts, and resumption of the Foreign Military Financing program cancelled in 1999.
What should we ask of the Turks in return? Economic liberalization, privatization, continued campaigns against corruption and police abuse, and a constructive engagement with Iraqi Kurdistan, which given its secular, pro-Western outlook is potentially Turkey's best ally among its Muslim neighbors and a potential guarantor of the integrity of Turkey's eastern border. Moreover, if Turkey wishes to influence the Iraqi government, the Kurds are their natural interlocutor, as they will be the strongest voice for local and regional control, as well as minority rights. (Turkey maintains an interest in the rights of the Iraqi Turkmen, who are actually ethnic and linguistic Western Turks, not relatives of the Türkmen of Central Asia.)
Despite our recent quarrels, the United States and Turkey would both reap tremendous gains from closer cooperation. Is there reason to be optimistic? Perhaps. President Erdogan was, after Tony Blair, the most important head of government to attend Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington. Erdogan and President Bush are both statesmen with abiding religious faith and a keen sense of the enemy we both face from Islamist terrorists. Even in the run-up to the NATO Summit, terrorists have set off deadly bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey's memory of its decades-long battle with the vicious PKK, and the Islamists' targeting of its own secular government, will likely inoculate it from Spanish-style unilateral surrender.
Turkey could be America's most important regional ally, above Iraq, even above Israel, if both sides manage the relationship correctly. And America can be Turkey's means to becoming a first-rank Western state, the model Muslim democracy, and a political-economic powerhouse. Both sides have significant prejudices and obstacles to overcome before they can work together, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.
William J. Walsh is a writer with an interest in European, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Central Asian affairs.