THE HILL 05/17/11
By Michael Shank

America has yet to figure out whether Turkey is friend or foe.

With conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan, and tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia, Turkey’s generous military and aid contribution pleases Washington. With Armenia, Israel and Iran, however, Turkey spurns Washington for refusing the genocide label, stalling negotiations and opposing sanctions, respectively.

Coupled with a co-mingling of political Islam and neoliberal economic policies, and you have Washington on alert, always angling this ambiguous ally, edging her to go west, instead of east.

While Washington speculates that Turkey benefits from this elusiveness, traders in Istanbul and politicos in Ankara beg to differ, citing unreliable relations and unpredictable policymaking – which inspires Turkic-American organizations to take members of Congress and their staff to Turkey to fact-find. Having returned recently myself from one such trip, it remains clear that on several fronts Turkey is poised to please.

The world’s 16th largest economy and sixth largest economy among EU countries, Turkey wants to be bigger, better and bolder, aiming to be a top ten economy by 2023. Operating under free-market fundamentals, with no trading partner exempt, it is tacking towards that goal. This need not scare the US (and which is also why Turkey wallpapers Washington’s billboards with western-friendly “Travel Turkey” advertisements and why Kobe Bryant and Kevin Costner are spokesmen for Turkish Airlines).

If Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is serious about its global aspirations, it needs to reassure skeptical westerners that political Islam and democracy are compatible. In doing so, Turkey will need to boost its low ranking on the Global Peace Index (126 out of 149), in which Economist Intelligence Unit data highlights Turkey’s organized conflict, disrespect for human rights, perceived criminality, violent crime and ease of access to small arms.

To further this, in our meetings with AKP and the opposition Republican People’s party and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party, it was evident that while much political progress has been made in ten years, political freedoms need extending.

And as Turkey advances its goal of economic progress, it cannot view its workforce in such expendable terms. Among the OECD’s richest, the U.S. and Turkey are nearly tied for the highest income inequality, which brings with it the worst rates of life expectancy, social mobility, violence, infant mortality, obesity, literacy, homicides, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, and drug and alcohol addiction.

In our meetings, Turkish government officials boasted a workforce that worked longer and for less than EU counterparts. This is not necessarily something to brag about. To Turkey’s credit, while corporate social and environmental responsibility is relatively new to Turkish technocrats, it is hosting the U.N. Global Compact this month, the U.N.’s agency focused on better business practices.

Social and political progress, as well as economic growth, are very achievable – and in the interests both of Turkey and the U.S. Among Turkey’s neighbors, the potential for Turkey to play a positive role in diplomatic partnership with the U.S. is equally great – having already brokered negotiations, releases and ceasefire attempts in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya.

Now, it’s time to go further. In the case of Iran, given that few interlocutors are left for forthcoming negotiations, Turkey remains uniquely positioned to keep open lines of communication, essential for preventing rogue regimes from radicalization.

From Islamic politics to gas imports (Iran provides one-third of Turkey’s total), Ankara’s contacts with Tehran should be encouraged by the U.S., not treated as a cause for excommunication. Another neighbour, Syria, needs Turkey’s sustained engagement, now more than ever.

During our trip, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reopened talks with Damascus to encourage reform and underline discontent with unrest. Turkey’s history and proximity with Syria, as with Iran, affords it special envoy status; again, something to be capitalized on, not castigated.

So, if Turkey wants to be a regional mediator, the U.S. should support this. Few parties are so well positioned to liaise between the western and Arab and Muslim worlds. While Qatar, Malaysia and others are keen arbiters, Turkey has unique leverage given its role and relations in the region.

With or without us, Turkey is moving forward – from economic innovation , such as Erdoğan’s proposed Canal Istanbul, to diplomatic intervention, such as the proposed roadmap for Libya.

Given the continued likely rejection of its application for EU membership, Turkey is realizing that flying solo may serve its interests best. But that only underlines the need for Washington’s attentive engagement.

Michael Shank is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s school for conflict analysis and resolution and serves on the board of the National Peace Academy. This article was first published in The Guardian on Sunday, May 15, 2011.