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Turkey's Domino Theory

By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 21, 2008

ISTANBUL -- As Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's leading foreign policy strategist, explains the series of political choices that are ahead in the Middle East next year, he might be describing a row of dominoes. If they fall in the right direction, good things could happen. But if they start toppling the wrong way, watch out.

Davutoglu's domino theory deserves careful attention from Barack Obama's team as it thinks about Middle East strategy. The Turkish official knows his stuff. As the top adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he has managed Turkey's successful mediation between Syria and Israel as well as other delicate diplomacy in this messy part of the world.

Davutoglu spoke with me Wednesday in the Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosporus. The Ottoman setting was appropriate. For Davutoglu has overseen a shift in Turkish diplomacy over the past several years -- away from Europe and toward the surrounding region that, until a century ago, was governed from this ancient city. This change of emphasis upsets some Turks, but I'll get to that later.

What's intriguing about Davutoglu's analysis is that it involves a series of elections. That's good news for a region that has had too little democracy. The bad news is that voters may make choices that confound U.S. policy -- and that make peace in the region more difficult.

"We want the world community to understand that these elections are important, and that they will affect the Obama presidency," explains Davutoglu.

The string of political choices begins with the Palestinians. The term of President Mahmoud Abbas expires Jan. 9, and with it, his authority to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas had hoped that his term might be extended for a year as part of a reconciliation with the radical group Hamas.

Abbas may instead call for presidential and parliamentary elections early next year. Right now, polls show his Fatah organization ahead of Hamas, 42 percent to 28 percent. But the situation is explosive, quite literally, because Hamas's cease-fire with Israel expired on Friday. If Hamas votes with rockets, Israelis will become even more pessimistic about a two-state solution.

The next political domino is Israel itself. Elections will take place Feb. 10 to replace the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Polls are predicting a victory for hard-line Likud candidate Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a sharp critic of Olmert's efforts to create a Palestinian state. A Netanyahu victory would complicate U.S. policy choices, to put it mildly.

"If hard-liners begin to win [among Palestinians and Israelis], that means the issue will be security," says Davutoglu. "Security will be more important than peace."

There is balloting ahead in Iraq, too. The Jan. 31 local elections could reinforce the accord reached when the Iraqi parliament endorsed a three-year limit on the U.S. military presence. But it could also deepen Iraq's regional and sectarian tensions -- and provoke a new flare-up of violence just as Obama is preparing to withdraw troops.

The line of political dominoes continues. Lebanon goes to the polls to elect a new parliament in April, with a final round of voting in June. Iran and Saudi Arabia already are pumping in tens of millions of dollars to support their favorite candidates. And then in June, a crucial presidential election will take place in Iran, which will determine whether radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stays or goes.

Davutoglu says his slogan is "zero problems on our borders." The next few months will test whether that optimistic strategy is viable.

As I noted earlier, not everyone here is enthusiastic about the Turkish government's new stress on regional diplomacy. Critics argue that although Erdogan is still officially committed to joining the European Union, he is actually abandoning that goal. "They have lost enthusiasm on the E.U. All their energy now is on regional politics," contends Sedat Ergin, editor of the daily newspaper Milliyet.

Some Turks also worry that as Erdogan turns away from Europe, he is becoming less tolerant of his opponents. Critics cite his call in September for a boycott of Milliyet and other papers that had reported on a corruption case in Germany involving members of his party. "His limit of tolerance for freedom of the press and freedom of expression is pretty low," argues Soli Ozel, a columnist for Sabah newspaper.

Davutoglu stresses that Turkey's new regional role isn't a throwback to the days of the Ottoman pashas. The world has changed. Democracy rules. But that doesn't guarantee people will vote the way the United States wants.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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