President Barack Obama's planned trip to Turkey has nudged that country into public consciousness. It is for most Americans, an oddity: A relatively secular, relatively open democratic society with an avowedly Muslim government, in a region riven with religious fundamentalism and strife and dominated by autocratic regimes. Its vibrant political life was well-illustrated this past weekend when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won fewer than 40% of the votes, down from nearly 50% in the previous elections, as voters expressed dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the economy.
Despite a close and long-time NATO partnership, Turkish-American relations sank to new lows during the George W. Bush Administration, triggered by the Turkish Parliament's refusal to allow use of Turkish territory and airspace to facilitate the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The US president's upcoming visit to Turkey can pave the way for renewed good relations between the two traditional allies and help Turkey play a more effective, enlarged role in a reinvigorated Middle East peace process.
In recent months, Turkey has fostered renewed Israeli-Syrian contacts, has identified Hizbollah and Fatah elements that would agree to participate in dialogues on the two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution, and has made it clear that it will facilitate safe passage for withdrawing American troops and equipment from Iraq. Turkey is playing a more active regional role, and it is in both regional and US interests that it continue to do so.
But Turkey's effectiveness and its relationships with both the US and the EU depend on five key factors.
First, domestic developments in Turkey. 2008 brought a historic confrontation between the Kemalist so-called "deep state" -- the armed forces, government bureaucracy and judiciary -- and the popularly elected government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose AKP can trace its roots to the Islamic movement's predecessors. Late in August 2008, Turkey's highest court narrowly missed outlawing the AKP and stripping Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdulah Gul of their political rights. Had the decision gone the other way, it could have created crisis conditions that some would have called "a judicial coup by the deep state".
Now, a second act of this confrontation is underway: the highly controversial "Ergenekon case," currently being argued before a Turkish court on the outskirts of Istanbul. Ergenekon allegedly is a shadowy, underground organization, involving active-duty military and security-services officers, as well as journalists and businessmen plotting to destabilize Turkey's political system through sabotage and targeted assassinations in hopes of forcing the army to take control. Many Kemalists believe that Prime Minister Erdogan is following a secret Islamic agenda and using Turkey's democratization as a cover for undermining its secular establishment. It is probably safe to predict that the case will close with the conviction and sentencing of a number of persons already under arrest, but without affecting the rights and privileges traditionally enjoyed by the powerful Turkish military-industrial complex.
The second variable, Turkey's path toward EU membership, will certainly have a deep impact on the country's foreign and domestic policies and behavior. After adding 10 new members in 2004, the EU is suffering from "enlargement fatigue." France, Germany and Austria most visibly have serious reservations about admitting Turkey, a country of 70 million Moslems, into the cash-strapped Union. For the EU, because Turkey offers a safe route for transport of Iranian and Central Asian natural gas, it is an attractive alternative to dependence on Russia for energy. Some are proposing a "special relationship" or, more politically correct, a "privileged membership." The likely reaction of Turkish elites to being scorned by the Europeans will be to look eastward toward Russia and the Central Asian republics and to reassert a stronger role as a regional strategic partner of the US and perhaps Israel. Cassandras, of course, predict that a European affront will give new energy to Turkey's Islamic fundamentalists.
Third, the currently strained relationship with Israel is probably a passing phase, a consequence of Israel's invasion of Gaza, and passive US acceptance of it. The short but amazingly destructive Gaza invasion significantly elevated anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism in Turkey and elsewhere in the world, with special bitterness in Muslim countries. The Turkish government, along with the US and the EU, is openly promoting the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. But if the new Netanyahu government rejects a two-state approach and the "land for peace" formula with all its neighbors, we can expect Turkish-Israeli relations to stay chilly.
The fourth variable, Russo-Turkish relations, is extremely complex, rife with historical conflicts and competing interests in Central Asia. If, for example, a modus vivendi is worked out between President Obama and the Medvedev/Putin team - exchanging the anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic for Russian cooperation on Iran - then Turkey's cooperation with Russia on Central Asian and Caucasus can contribute to the development of coordinated policies in that notoriously unstable region.
The final factor, the "Kurdish question," is of vital importance for Turkey's future and for its role in the region and the world. This question too is heavily linked with Turkey's European quest. Continued prospects of Turkey's membership in the EU, consolidation of democratic rule and human rights protection, will deny Kurdish separatists the oxygen of perceived injustices that sustains their destabilizing activities. Progress toward integration of Turkey into Europe and success as a moderate regional power will also reduce tensions with Greece in the Aegean and Cyprus.
The symbolism of President Obama's trip to Turkey will not be lost on the Muslim world. To reinforce that symbolism, he would do well to repeat what he told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a 2007 interview, which Kristof reiterated in a 2008 column in the heat of the campaign: "Mr. Obama praised the Arabic call to prayer as 'one of the prettiest sounds on earth at sunset,' and he repeated the opening of it."
The US and the EU have a common stake in Turkish success: A Turkey that consolidates its democracy, stabilizes its economy and its population growth, and fulfills the EU membership criteria, will go far to destroy the myth that Islam and democracy don't mix.