October 17, 2003 - Never spend too much time longing for something to happen, because one day you might get your wish and find it is not a miracle cure for all your woes. That piece of homespun wisdom must often be recalled, these days, by American diplomats in Turkey.
For many years, the United States has been coaxing that country toward better relations with western Europe -- and imploring a reluctant European Union to accept Turkey as a candidate for admission. Given that Turkey was a fast-growing, fast-changing Muslim society adjoining several conflict zones, it seemed obvious to Americans that the Turks should be helped to look westward, not eastward.

Now that old policy goal seems within sight of fulfillment. As part of its preparations for a European future, Turkey's parliament has made a historic move toward downgrading the shadowy power of the military-controlled National Security Council and making the country more like a normal democracy, where elected civilians give orders to generals, not vice-versa. The government has also begun to ease restrictions on minority languages and faiths, and improve the country's poor human rights record.

If the pace of change in Turkey remains steady and intentions turn into reality, the EU should finally be ready, by the end of next year, to open formal entry talks with Ankara. In other words, democracy is deepening -- and becoming irreversible -- in a Muslim country that plays a pivotal role in the Middle East. That, if you recall, was precisely the result that the Bush administration said it was pursuing when it invaded Iraq.

So why is nobody in Washington cheering? The answer is that, as Turkish-European relations have started to improve, Turkish-American relations have plummeted, especially since the Turkish parliament voted in March to deny the use of Turkish soil for the U.S.-led assault on Iraq. In fact, one reason why Turkey and western Europe are getting along better is that, in both places, America-bashing abounds. Consider a poll by the Pew Research Center in May indicating that 83 percent of Turks had an unfavorable opinion of the United States, up from 55 percent last year.
So the United States faces two questions: how, if at all, can it mend its own fences with Turkey, and should it still bother to encourage a closer relationship between the Turks and the Europeans?
The first question has no instant answer. Currently, the U.S. is trying to persuade the Turkish government to dispatch peacekeeping troops to Iraq to give some relief to American soldiers. But, even if these deliberations bear fruit, it is far from clear that the U.S.-Turkish rift will be healed. Turkish opinion remains deeply reluctant to send troops to Iraq in support of American policy, and Iraq's embryonic government also seems queasy about accepting Turkish protectors. If, despite these factors, Turkish troops go to Iraq and suffer casualties under U.S. leadership, ordinary Turks will be enraged.

Behind this negative climate lies the hard fact that American and Turkish interests in northern Iraq have diverged. Turkey wants to strike out against the Kurdish fighters who fomented a 15-year civil war in Turkey, while the U.S. needs as many Kurds as possible to back its ongoing struggle against remnants of Saddam's regime. Perhaps these differences can eventually be finessed, but there are no magic wands.
What about the second, more subtle dilemma? Is it still in Washington's interests to keep the Turks and Europeans on friendly terms? A Machiavellian cynic could argue the contrary. Since Washington's best friends in Turkey have often been the generals, why should the United States support a change, such as membership in the EU, that will downgrade their power? And, in the end, wouldn't Turkey feel a greater incentive to snuggle up to the United States if it were kept outside the European door?

Such thoughts may be tempting, but it would be highly irresponsible to act on them because Turkish democracy and, indeed, the country itself are more fragile than they seem. If Turkey is now inching toward a stable European future, that can be attributed to a delicate equilibrium between the secularist military and the ruling party of moderate Islamists.

Both of these groups want Turkey to be accepted by elite western and European institutions, but not at any price. The generals are suspicious of Europe because it will force Turkey -- in the name of religious freedom -- to be more tolerant of devout Islam. Some Islamist voters baulk at the EU's insistence on tolerance toward non-Muslim minorities.

But, despite these risks, Turkey's pro-European consensus is, so far, holding out, and it would not be in any Western country's interests for that consensus to collapse. Moreover, a Turkey alienated from Europe, with dire consequences for its political stability and investment climate, would not be a useful friend to anybody. And, lastly, the failure of the Muslim world's boldest attempt at pluralist democracy would send a dreadful signal to other Islamic countries.
What, in particular, can Washington do? At this time, one of the biggest risks -- and biggest opportunities -- with respect to Turkey's march toward Europe lies on the island of Cyprus, where soldiers from Turkey and EU member Greece still confront each other. There is a slim and probably short-lived chance that the island's Turkish-Greek standoff, and, hence, a long-running Turkish-European problem, could be resolved in the run-up to next May, when Cyprus is due to join the EU.

Washington should do what it can to encourage the Turks, the Greeks, and other Europeans to jump through that window. More generally, Americans should be applauding more enthusiastically every time Turkey moves toward a democratic European future by mending fences with neighbors, liberalizing its constitution, deepening civil liberties, or reforming its economy. Those friendly American cheers will not bring about a miracle or instantly reconcile the Turks and the Americans, but the derailing of Turkish democracy is still well worth avoiding.

Bruce Clark, an Adjunct Fellow at the Western Policy Center, recently began a research sabbatical from The Economist magazine, where he has worked since 1998 as International Security Editor, specializing in the Balkans, post-communist transition, trans-Atlantic relations, and peacekeeping issues.

© Copyright Western Policy Center 2003