Turkey's place at center stage for this week's NATO summit is more than symbolic. Beyond Iraq, both the United States and Europe have one dominant policy mission--to break the logjam of political dysfunction in the Middle East. Turkey seems the perfect broker: the country is Islamic but secular; despite ongoing bombings like the ones last week that killed four people, it's relatively peaceful; it has abandoned its police-state past, and it's run by a moderate, Islamic-leaning government that has shown a strong interest in reforming the wider Muslim world.
But when U.S. President George W. Bush presses Ankara to get onboard with Washington's so-called Greater Middle East Project, he's likely to be gently rebuffed. Turkey has long seen itself as a bridge between East and West, and has been engaging with its Islamic neighbors more than it has for a generation. But Ankara policymakers say the country is not going to do so on Washington's terms. Turkey favors Europe's softly-softly approach to the Middle East. That's not just because the country wants to join the EU, but because the Turks are convinced that any project carrying a U.S. stamp is a nonstarter in the region. (On Saturday, in fact, three Turks were taken hostage in Iraq and threatened with beheading unless their countrymen stopped cooperating with U.S.-led forces in Iraq.)
Sources at NATO headquarters say that Bush's radical plans for reforming the Middle East have so little support that they aren't even going to be mentioned in the end-of-summit communique. Instead the project, now renamed the Istanbul Cooperative Initative, may be tackled in a separate document, and even that "will be an expression of support, but not engagement," says one European ambassador to NATO.
So how come Turkey, for decades a closer ally of Washington than of Brussels, is siding with the Bush skeptics? Domestic opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq remains strong. "Being an ally does not mean that you accept everything," warned Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as he cold-shouldered a recent U.S. request for access to Turkish military bases. Ankara's top foreign-policy objective is getting a start date for talks to join the EU at the Union's December summit--and siding with the United States at this deli-cate point in negotiations is unlikely to win many friends in Brussels. And many Turkish officials are simply convinced that the American plan, with its emphasis on elections, won't work. "Democracy, for many Arab countries from Algeria to Egypt, may mean power for fundamentalist forces," warns retired diplomat Yuksel Soylemez.
That's not to say that Turkey isn't in favor of many of the things Washington wants to encourage. Both Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have made a point of calling for the liberation of women, political reform and freedom of speech across the region. But, says a senior European diplomat in Ankara, the Turks have decided that "being seen as a mouthpiece of the White House" isn't likely to win them much of a hearing. "If the U.S. sticks to the support for change and does not give the impression that it has other designs about the region, Turkey can work with Washington and others who want to help," says a senior Turkish official--hardly a ringing endorsement.
That said, Turkey is anxious to exert more influence. Ankara pushed hard for the nomination of a Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to be the new secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And in Iraq, officials have expressed a more flexible approach to the idea of a federal Kurdish entity in the north, by at least entertaining the possibility that one could develop. The bigger question is whether Middle Eastern nations will be any more open to listening to the Turks--who under the Ottomans ruled much of the region--than the Americans. "Turkey is simultaneously respected and feared," says Soylemez. In any case, warns Gul, change imposed from outside is doomed to failure. "The initiative for change and reform in the Islamic world should come from within," he says. "Their own intellectuals and civil society must lead." With the Turks giving them a nudge in the right direction.