By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 9:00 PM
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu smiled cheerfully as he reiterated: Yes, the clash between Israeli commandos and Turkish Islamic activists off the coast of the Gaza Strip in May can be fairly compared with al-Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington.
"It was the Turkish 9/11 - I repeat it!" he exclaimed during a visit to Washington last week. "I don't mean the numbers," he added when it was pointed out that 2,900 people died on Sept. 11 and nine in the flotilla fight. "I am trying to express the psychological shock in Turkey. Our citizens were killed by a foreign army."
Actually, it wasn't quite that simple. The Turks were not innocent civilians but militants who sought a confrontation; they were killed not by suicidal terrorists but by professional soldiers whose first weapons were mace and paintballs.
So it's a little jarring to hear Davutoglu make his main point: that there is no real reason for discord between his government and the Obama administration. "For more than 20 months we had excellent relations," he said. "And as strategic allies we have to protect those relations."
Turkey is a member of NATO, a host of U.S. military bases vital to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a major purchaser of American weapons. But is it still really an ally? As some of the more interesting of the WikiLeaked State Department documents show, that is a question that two consecutive U.S. administrations have struggled with. During eight years of rule by the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, Turkey has become something of a model of the tricky 21st-century relationships the United States will have to manage.
Turkey used to be an authoritarian state that reliably lined up with the West. Now it is a democracy with a booming economy - and big geopolitical ambitions. The power of popular support has given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the confidence to undercut U.S. policy in Iran, cultivate anti-American Muslim dictators in Sudan and Syria, and make Israel a near-enemy - all while deploying Turkish troops in Kabul and counting on the United States to help his army fight Kurdish insurgents.
The Middle East still has rulers such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a sullen strongman who quietly supports U.S. strategic interests but refuses to modernize his rotting autocracy. Erdogan sees that as an opportunity to become the region's power broker. "Turkey, building on the alleged admiration among Middle Eastern populations for its economic success and power and willing to stand up for the interests of the people, reaches over the [undemocratic] regimes to the 'Arab street,' " explains one cable dispatched by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara this year. Thus the overheated rhetoric about Israel, delivered with calculation as well as passion.
Davutoglu is something of an antihero of the WikiLeaks cables, described as "exceptionally dangerous" and "lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies." Having arrived in Washington a few hours after those descriptions were released, he accepted an apology from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, played down the damage - and embraced at least part of the embassy's analysis. "Britain has a commonwealth" with its former colonies, he reminded me. Why shouldn't Turkey rebuild its leadership in former Ottoman lands in the Balkans, Middle East and Central Asia?
It's fascinating to follow the emotional swings in U.S. analysis of this rapidly changing partner. Erdogan is acidly described by former ambassador Eric Edelman as having "an authoritarian loner streak"; Edelman's successor, James F. Jeffrey, concludes that Erdogan "simply hates Israel" and that his drive for regional authority "has not achieved any single success of note." Yet the dispatches also include admiration for Erdogan's political skills and for Turkey's role in Lebanon, Pakistan and even Syria.
In fact, as a would-be leader of the "Arab street," Erdogan looks much more attractive than competitors such as Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah. In the end Turkey depends on European trade and investment; it wants a democratic Iraq, a non-nuclear Iran and NATO's success in Afghanistan. It still recognizes Israel. It is, in essence, a genuine Muslim democracy - which means that it is both more difficult and, in a way, more of an ally than it used to be.
"At the end of the day we will have to live with a Turkey whose population is propelling much of what we see," Jeffrey wrote in a penetrating dispatch. "This calls for an issue-by-issue approach and recognition that Turkey will often go its own way." "The current cast of political leaders," he noted, have a "special yen for destructive drama and rhetoric. But we see no one better on the horizon, and Turkey will remain a complicated blend of world class 'Western' institutions, competencies and orientation, and Middle Eastern culture and religion."
No wonder Davutoglu was grinning. In the end, State's reporting had captured the new Turkey rather well.