“Let me say this as clearly as I can. The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. . . America’s relationship with the Muslim world world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al Qaeda.” Barack Obama, Ankara, 6 April, 2009
President Obama’s Turkish state visit is pivotal because he used it as a powerful opportunity to reverse the primitive Islamophobia which has blighted US relations with the Middle East and empowered 20 years of stupid, unrepresentative fundamentalist terrorism. It also signals recognition that Turkey is potentially the most important US regional ally, not least because of its geography. It is the Middle East’s largest secular democracy and has NATO’s second largest armed forces after the US. It has a modern plural economy, a global outlook, youthful demographics and a respect for education and social improvement. Most important, it can and will stand up to any other beligerent power in the region and would probably prevail, nuclear conflict notwithstanding.
Turkey’s robust opposition to its former ally Israel’s destructive adventures in the Lebanon and Gaza can be used by Obama to send a message the Netanyahu administration (and to AIPAC) to exercise restraint. Turkey, no shrinking violet when it comes to dealings with terrorist groups or dissent, (without excusing its past, I personally think its reputation as a human rights abuser has been exaggerated), has opined that Hamas must be included in any peace talks (however odious that may be to some, Hamas is an elected authority). So has Syria, another fiercely secular state. Pragmatism should not be confused with endorsement. It has its own internal tensions regarding fundamentalism, but has by and large dealt with these efficiently and, by contrast with other players, reasonably. Contrary to received wisdom, the military has been far from heavy-handed of late. Turkey is a sophisticated ‘managed’ democracy. Its model may not please the idealogues, but, as we saw with Iraq, ‘Democracy Inc.’ (inverted totalitarianism) proved itself least as dangerous as Al Qaeda.
If Obama can genuinely open a sensible dialogue with Iran and Syria and if these countries recognise the opportunity and react accordingly, it will confound the Israeli hawks and their Beltway coat-holders who have led US Middle East policy by the nose for so long for their own dubious purposes. Obama has made clear that he favours a two state solution, which Netanyahu continues to oppose. He has also made it clear that Turkey could gain huge prestige by reconciling its differences with Armenia. It has already gained much by conceding identity rights to its Kurdish population. In doing so, it has weakened grassroots support for the PKK and with the first Kurdish parliamentarians, promises to include, not isolate, the substantial Kurdish minority in Turkey’s national identity.
The benefits to the world of a progressive plural democracy with economic links to Europe and the US are immense. Turkey has adhered to customs union with the EU since 1996, has delivered on its NATO commitments and, in fact, its refusal to play the Bush game as regards Iraq arguably saved the country and the region from complete conflagration. A Middle Eastern country will never be comfortable in the ‘expanded’ EU. Turkey has little to gain from being an unwelcome bit player in a club which has long outgrown its remit, has overplayed its hand and has bitten off far more than it can chew with its latest impoverished member states. It is also puzzling to understand exactly why or how Obama’s endorsement of Turkey’s EU membership carries any legitimacy. Last time I looked, the USA was not a member state. And it already has an Uncle Tom.