Turkey Is Central on World War IV’s Frontline

Turkish Electorate

For those who argue that Sept. 11 plunged the U.S. and the West into World War IV, a long struggle against militant Islam, this has been a dark summer.

Yet a Muslim-oriented party’s sweeping parliamentary victory in democratic Turkey provides hope in a strategic place, provided Europe, the U.S. and the Turks themselves don’t squander the opportunity.

“Turkey is to our national security now what Germany was in the Cold War,” says Richard Holbrooke, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Germany and is now adviser to Hillary Clinton. “It is our new frontline state.”

Former Afghanistan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani sees Turkey’s centrality emerging from its position on the three critical fault lines of our times: between order and disorder, between moderate and extremist Islam, and between the Western and Islamic world.

Those fault lines have never looked more perilous. Iraq is sliding toward a vicious civil war abetted by American domestic politics that don’t grasp the stakes. Iran is advancing its malignant regional and atomic ambitions. A nuclear-tipped Pakistan grows more unstable, while al-Qaeda and the Taliban regroup within its borders. Afghanistan is slipping, Hamas has taken Gaza, and Hezbollah threatens Lebanon. European-based Muslim extremists struck the U.K. again and promise to elsewhere.

That only heightens the importance of the July 22 parliamentary victory of Turkey’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, giving it unprecedented political dominance. It gained some 47 percent of the vote, adding 12 points to its 2002 victory and landing 341 of 550 seats.

Falling Short

In that victory lies a rare example of a Muslim-oriented party leading a lively, democratic system that continues to separate mosque and state and protects secular and minority rights.

That is also why the current debate in Turkey falls too short. It focuses on whether the AKP should install as president, the bastion of its national secularism, a pious Muslim whose wife wears a headscarf. Buoyed by its victory, the party renominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose presidential candidacy the military blocked in April. He will probably be elected by the time of the parliament’s third round of voting Aug. 28, assuming the military doesn’t risk the social and economic cost of intervening again.

Yet the point isn’t what his wife wears but what the Turkish political transformation from military-enforced secularism to Muslim-oriented leadership means to our fragile times.

Soft Power

Many dislike the notion of Turkey as a player in World War IV, following World Wars I, II and the Cold War. That’s partly due to the term’s roots among neoconservatives and the false inference that President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” has a military solution.

Johns Hopkins University Professor Eliot A. Cohen, writing in the Wall Street Journal two months after Sept. 11, argued that World War IV — like the Cold War — would be global, have ideology at its core and above all require the mobilization of soft power: skills, expertise and resources.

The Bush administration has failed most profoundly in underestimating the ideological challenge and overestimating the effectiveness of force. Anti-Americanism has grown rapidly in Turkey, with only 9 percent of Turks having a favorable view of the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center poll, down from 52 percent in a 2000 survey by the U.S. State Department.

Favoring bin Laden

Turks are three times as likely to have a favorable view of Osama bin Laden as they are of Bush. The European Union has also suffered due to its own reluctance to embrace Turkey. Turks’ favorable view of the EU has fallen to 28 percent this year from 57 percent in 2004.

So with that in mind, here’s what Europe, the U.S. and above all Turkey must do to ensure this summer’s shift has a happy ending.

EU leaders and citizens must agree that Turkey is the most critical geopolitical challenge and that the only thing riskier than absorbing it as an EU member would be to shut it out on religious grounds. French President Nicolas Sarkozy must reflect on the broader consequences of his dangerous opposition to Turkey’s membership.

More Damage

The U.S. must avoid more damage during the Bush administration. That will require providing Turkey with help combating PKK Kurdish terrorist cells operating along its border with northern Iraq, if only to ensure the Turkish military itself doesn’t do so. Congress must also resist the temptation to pass pending bills branding the Ottoman Empire’s actions against Armenians as genocide. Irrespective of the facts of the argument, such resolutions have been blocked before by U.S. presidents and the timing now is particularly inopportune because it could inflame a country that is critical to U.S. supply lines for Iraq.

Yet the greatest responsibility rests upon the Turks, particularly Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his party. The irony is that the AKP, whose predecessor parties were hounded and outlawed for being too openly Islamic, remade itself as a pro- Europe, pro-secular force and has now replaced the Turkish military as the guarantor of Turkey’s democratic future. At the same time, secular parties must regroup to provide a more viable opposition that keeps the AKP honest.

Turkey’s historic shift, however, invests the AKP with greatly increased responsibility. It must tame the extremists in its ranks who prefer Islamic to constitutional law, and combat al-Qaeda cells and assorted threats in the country. And even as it establishes closer relations with the Islamic world, which can benefit the West, it needs to preserve its ties to NATO and its EU membership aspirations.

None of this means the West can afford to shift attention to Turkey from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, any more than it could ignore the Warsaw Pact and focus on Germany during the Cold War. But just as Germany’s fate was crucial then, so too could Turkey’s be decisive now.

Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic CouncilOriginally published 23 August 2007 by  Bloomberg News. Reprinted with permission.


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