Representatives at the Nabucco Gas Pipeline signing ceremony (AP)"Turks want to see prosperity and stability in their neighborhood ... They sit in a very important place in the Middle East and Eurasia, so they look around and say, ‘here’s a region in which we could have some positive effect.’"
President Obama gave a high profile speech in Turkey within his first 100 days, and yet six months into his administration the Pew Global Attitudes showed that the United States only has a 14 percent approval rating in Turkey. Why do you think that is, and how do you envision U.S.-Turkish relations in the coming year?
Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. Public opinion in Turkey is always hard on the United States. The president’s speech was well received, but the administration still has a job to do with Turkey. That job encompasses several areas. Crucial is a continuing commitment by this administration to follow on the efforts made by previous administrations to visibly and effectively help Turkey fight the PKK, the terrorist organization that has been attacking Turkey for years and still has members who live in and operate from northern Iraq. Important also are the administration’s efforts to promote progress in the Middle East, and here what Special Envoy George Mitchell is doing is very important. Third, America should strongly support the Nabucco pipeline, which is a proposed 2,000 mile pipeline which would run from the Caucasus to Vienna, through Turkey, to bring natural gas from Eurasia to Europe. The administration has appointed a special envoy—Ambassador Richard Morningstar—to support an East-West Energy Corridor. The more we can show support for the Nabucco pipeline, the stronger the relationship will be with Turkey. Finally, as President Obama did in his speech, again following both Presidents Bush and President Clinton, is to continue strongly to support Turkish membership in the European Union; not half membership or three-quarters membership, but full membership. One other important thing: Turkish leaders need to speak out in favor of the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
If those things can happen, along with a continuing increase in business and tourism between Turkey and the United States, there’s a chance that the poll numbers will be better a year from now than they are today.
What impact might the plan for the United States redeploying from Iraq have on Turkey? Conversely, what can Turkey do to support Iraq, particularly in light of its burgeoning relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government?
No country would benefit more from a successful and stable Iraq than Turkey. The amount of investment from Turkish business people going into Iraq is a good sign. Turkey will play an important role as the United States pulls troops out of Iraq. Just as the U.S. used the Turkish base at Incirlik to rotate troops and supplies into Iraq, I would assume that the U.S. will use Incirlik as people leave as well. Second, a reason that I mentioned the Nabucco pipeline in my previous answer is that one of the exciting things that happened a couple of weeks ago at a signing ceremony for the pipeline in Ankara was that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that Iraqi gas could help fill the Nabucco pipeline. Turks and Iraqis ought to work, along with the United States, to make al-Maliki’s offer a reality, because it would be a big step forward for Iraq to becoming more successful economically. Third, as you say, there is an opportunity for Turkey to support sensible politics throughout Iraq, and particularly in the Kurdish region. Again, to go back to Nabucco, experts on Nabucco say that lots of the gas that could come from Iraq to Nabucco could be from the north, and that ought to be a positive for Turkish-Iraqi relations and also for Turkish-Kurdish relations.
Turkey has also indicated an interest in continuing to mediate between Syria and Israel, yet unnamed Israeli officials expressed concern last week about Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements during the Gaza conflict, and his ability to act as a mediator. Do you think Turkey still has a role in these peace talks?
The best thing would be for these talks to become direct between Israel and Syria. But to the extent that they need someone to facilitate and encourage the two sides to talk to one another, as Turkey has done over the past couple of years, then I think that there is a role for Ankara to play and I hope the Turks will continue to play it. These things are not easy, but give credit to the Turks for reaching out to Israelis and Syrians to see what might be done.
What do you think it is that motivates Turkey to get engaged in diplomatic efforts throughout the Middle East and in its region generally?
Turks want to see prosperity and stability in their neighborhood. It makes them nervous when there is conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It makes them nervous when there is conflict in Lebanon. They have a very good relationship with Israel and they have a very good relationship with the Palestinians. They don’t like to be caught in between. They would like to see these problems solved.
Turkey also feels itself to be an increasingly confident regional player. They sit in a very important place in the Middle East and Eurasia, so they look around and say, ‘here’s a region in which we could have some positive effect.’ And if you look around Turkey, it isn’t just in the Middle East. Again, I emphasize the energy questions in the Caucuses, in Central Asia. Also, I hope that Turkey will quickly normalize its relations with Armenia. Open the land border, for example. You see it also with Greece. I noticed the other day in The Economist that the Turkish foreign minister was talking about opening up the Halki seminary, which is a school in Istanbul that has been closed for too many years where Greek Orthodox priests are trained. So all around there are positive things that can be done.
And what do you think Turkey’s role might be with regards to Iran, particularly after the recent elections?
It’s important for Turkey to stand with the NATO allies and others and speak clearly to the Iranians about what a disaster it is for Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons. The Turkish president has said on a number of occasions that his message to the Iranians is clear: that Turkey does not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. An Iranian nuclear weapon would be a terrible development for Turkey. They are in a good position to make that case to Tehran.
They’ve also said that they might be good interlocutors—indirect mediators—between the West and Iran, because of their ties to both sides. Do think there’s an angle like that to it?
We’ll see. That depends more on Tehran than it does on Ankara.
Turning to domestic Turkish issues, what’s at stake for Turkey in their Ergenekon trials?
I think the main issue for Turks is the relationship between the individual and the government. You can see in Turkey over the past 20 or 25 years an increasing belief in the sanctity of the individual. Americans should support that. What’s at stake here is a debate about Turkey’s future and how Turkey can be a successful 21st century society by protecting the sanctity of the individual, freedom of expression, promoting the rule of law, further advancing and protecting the role of women in society and allowing people to make free choices in their economic life. One of the most interesting things about Turkey is that these questions are being debated there every day. While it’s quite exciting to watch this, those who hope for a successful 21st century Turkey also have to be prepared to speak out for pluralism, human rights and tolerance in that society. That’s why it’s so important for the United States, again President Obama follows on from President Bush 41, President Clinton, Bush 43, for the United States to continue to talk to the Europeans about the strategic importance of full membership of Turkey in the European Union.
How do you think that the recent European election results have affected the debate in Turkey?
As Turks watch the debate in Europe, they are disappointed that some leaders in Europe have framed the issue of Turkey’s membership as if it has to be decided today. Turkey’s not ready to become a member of the European Union today, and the EU is not ready to have Turkey be a full member today. This is a question for ten years from now. But the goal of full membership has to still be there. The idea that some politicians in Europe have said, ‘we have to decide this right now,’ is very negative for European public opinion and very negative for Turkish public opinion. If you’re a strategist at the State Department or the Defense Department you have to worry that decreasing numbers of Turks, according to opinion polls, are interested in Turkey becoming a member of the EU. Full membership in the EU has been the magnet that has driven much of the reform that has taken place in Turkey over the past 20 years. Much of that reform would have taken place in any case because Turks want to live in a freer society, but Europeans sometimes don’t give themselves enough credit for the astonishingly powerful magnet of the European Union. It would be a shame if that magnet is lost for Turkey.
We talked a little bit about what the United States can do to strengthen the relationship and strengthen Turkey. What can the United States seek or request from Turkey?
That’s a very important point because this is not a one-way street. Turkey has to continue its internal reform, continue on its path to becoming a more pluralistic, more tolerant society. The United States will also look for Turkey’s support in Afghanistan, in Iraq, with Iran, in the Middle East peace process. Turkey can be a place where people know it’s possible to be secular and democratic and Muslim simultaneously and that’s a very positive thing in this world.