In a couple of weeks, we will have a new U.S. administration to carry out radically different policies in the Middle East and around the world. No doubt, President-elect Donald Trump will busy himself with counter-terror strategies, and a radical interpretation of Islam would be his point of departure. How can Turkey play a role in this picture?
I know that the neo-liberal wing of the Republican Party, including some major think-tanks and experts, believe Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is something to be shunned rather than cooperated with. But Turkey may offer the best answer to the problem of radicalism in the region, against their wishes. You might ignore the neo-liberal supporters of incoming Republican government, but it is a fact that with a new administration they have more influence over these issues and their basic premises must be questioned.
They claim the current Turkish leadership is not a reliable ally. Obviously, their annoyance and obsession with Turkey goes back to March 2003, when Parliament — despite then-chairman of the ruling AK Party Tayyip Erdoğan's best efforts — decided to vote against a military mandate that would have also given free passage for U.S. troops to invade Iraq. Erdoğan was not in control of the party group in Parliament. Leadership was divided, as Prime Minister Abdullah Gül and others were suspicious of U.S. intentions. American officials accused Turks of unpredictability since they failed to deliver what they had promised. Some officials at the Pentagon still complain about the democratic decision by Parliament as they (mistakenly) believe this single act botched the whole operation in Iraq.
The nonsensical part of this story is that they regard Erdoğan, who was not a deputy, let alone prime minister due to a political ban he was serving at the time, an unreliable ally to the incoming Trump administration. However, Erdoğan has declared a couple of times since 2003 that he considers Parliament's decision faulty. He told a group of journalists in 2012 that he was among the supporters of the mandate, and one of his tasks was to re-introduce the bill to Parliament following his election as prime minister.
Erdoğan, again re-visited this episode in Turkish history last February, and complained about his former associates for secretly working against the mandate. "If Turkey had passed this legislation and entered Iraq, there would have been a different Iraq today. Then-President Bush was calling for special approval in this regard. But we had to face our own colleagues' mistakes," he told journalists accompanying him on a trip.
Of course, this issue greatly harmed relations with the Bush administration, but a second term was more fruitful. Turkey, willingly joined and later actively participated in the U.S.-led broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, which aimed to promote democracy in the region — an agenda that was rewarding for the Turkish leadership as well. Turkey also supported U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, as a matter of fact, still does, since the Turkish parliament, last Tuesday, extended the military's mandate in Afghanistan for two years. By flexing its muscles in the region, Turkey found a way to moderate the radical wing of political Islam by countering extremist Salafi movements, and providing an alternative with the Turkish interpretation of Islam; a peaceful, moderate and plural form. In return, the Bush administration provided more support to Turkey in its fight against terrorist the PKK in northern Iraq.
A brief history of Turkish-American relations since 2002 is enough evidence that both countries continued to work together against all the odds and challenges. A bi-partisan-in-appearance think-tank had the guts to claim that the next U.S. administration should not come to help its NATO ally Turkey, as President Erdoğan would continually ask more of President Trump as a result. The Bush-Erdoğan relationship I described above is single proof that this analysis is biased and out of touch with reality.
Strong Turkish-American relations in the upcoming days may be a step toward resolving the problems that stem from extremist Islamic tendencies in the region. It is partly why Daesh is also targeting Istanbul with terrorist attacks; Turkey is an example against everything the group stands for, as a Muslim majority country which secures peaceful co-existence of different lifestyles and beliefs. If helped by the Trump administration to put out the fires in Syria and its immediate neighborhood, Turkey may re-establish itself as a moderating force against all those extremist movements.