By Trudy Rubin

St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
October 31, 2010 Sunday

ISTANBUL -- All during the Cold War, Turkey was the NATO country the
United States took for granted, a secular Muslim state that straddled
Europe and Asia and defended a long border with the Soviet Union.

Then communism collapsed, and Washington thought it had a new role for
Turkey: With the election of an Islamic-oriented government in 2002,
it could become the model of moderate Muslim democracy. But after
several days in Ankara and Istanbul, I saw that this country is no
longer ready to play a role designed by others.

Welcome to the new Turkey, which is changing so rapidly that smart
people here tell me they don't know where their country is headed --
abroad or at home.

When it comes to Turkey's foreign policy, the debate over whether
Turkey has shifted its axis from West to East misses the point, says
veteran journalist Sami Kohen. He says the message from Ankara is:
"Forget the staunch supporter of NATO, the loyal ally, we're no longer
in the Cold War. Turkey is getting strong and can build its own axis.

Don't take Turkey for granted anymore."

Indeed, Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, told me that "Turkey no longer feels it necessary
to define itself in oppositional way, linked to one country at the
expense of another. People see no contradiction between membership
in the European Union and increasing trade with Russia, the Middle
East and Central Asia.

"Our economic interests compel us to have better relations with all
our neighbors," he said.

No question Turkey's efforts to expand its foreign trade and attract
new sources of foreign investment are part of what drives its
new interest in its Arab neighbors -- and Iran. Turkey is booming
economically while Western Europe sags; its once-backward heartland
boasts 15 so-called Anatolian "tigers," or growing industrial cities.

Turkey's dynamic construction sector -- which has rebuilt northern Iraq
and is a force all over the region -- had high hopes of getting huge
contracts in Iran, and Erdogan has called for increasing trade with
Tehran fivefold. That has proved far more difficult than expected,
and Iran has so far been skittish about letting the Turks in.

But Turkey's aspirations for developing its own foreign policy axis
go far beyond economic expansion.

Does Erdogan, who has traveled extensively to Muslim countries in
the Middle East and Asia, and receives adulation from Arab publics,
harbor dreams of becoming the pre-eminent Sunni Muslim political
leader? He vehemently denied that to me in an interview, saying,
"I have an identity as the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey."

Kalin describes Erdogan's role as "the most powerful leader in
Turkey in a long time who has become a regional leader -- by virtue
of geography, not to score points with the Arab street. Every major
issue in the region affects stability of the region, and therefore
we pay attention."

The unspoken premise is that the one-time guarantor of Mideast regional
stability -- the United States -- is fading from the picture.

"Obama is still popular here," Kalin said, "though most Turks think he
can't deliver." What he didn't say, but I heard everywhere, was that
Turks think Obama has used up his political capital and his Mideast
peace policy is a failure. Turks of every political persuasion are
also scornful of the mess made in Iraq by the Bush administration.

So given the American fade, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu,
has concluded that the United States is but one pole of many, and
Ankara will pursue better relations with China, Russia, Iran and its
Arab neighbors.

And Davotoglu has famously scripted a foreign policy aimed at having
zero enemies on Turkey's borders. Ankara has vastly improved its
relations with Iraqi Kurds, and its ties with Syria, with whom
it nearly went to war a decade ago. But the Erdogan government's
efforts to reconcile with Armenia tanked, as did efforts to broker
talks between Israel and Syria, which came apart when Israel invaded
Gaza in 2009.

After a week in this fascinating country, the question that lingers
is whether the Erdogan government can juggle its multiple ambitions,
maintaining links with the West and NATO while showing its independence
of both and occasionally spitting in their eyes.

No one can be certain where Ankara's foreign policy is headed, perhaps
not even the Erdogan government, just as it's hard to predict the
outcome of the deepening secular-religious split in the country. All
one can say with certainty is that this is a country to be watched.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the
Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Her
e-mail address is [email protected] .

From: A. Papazian