Mr. Erdogan is in Washington

WASHINGTON, DC - I never miss an opportunity to go to the U.S. I''ve been to Washington DC umpteen times, almost all of them for journalistic purposes. Once upon a time, I was invited by then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to accompany him on his official visit to the Gulf States, but instead I decided to cover President Turgut Ozal''s post-heart operation visit to the U.S. which took place at exactly the same time.

The reasons why I''m more than happy to call on the U.S. are obvious: I am a political columnist writing extensively on the matters interesting to my readership, and the U.S. has become a focal point for everybody with deep concern about world affairs. Each time I''m at the White House with a visiting Turkish dignitary I learn an additional intrigue of global politics. At least I feel I do. Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, and the Pentagon are places essential for understanding not only where world events are heading presently, but also in which direction events will evolve in the future. Even chance meetings with a real Washingtonian can serve as a mind-opening experience.

I know, and since I''ve shared my reasons you do too, why I don''t hesitate to take up any opportunity to visit the States. Nevertheless, why Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is so eager to go to Washington, I am completely at sea. Of course, I know there is chemistry between him and George W. Bush established even before he became prime minister, and Erdogan likes to make a point of seeing those whom he considers a friend.

I happened to meet with Prime Minister Erdogan last week when his team was putting final touches to the preparations for his U.S. visit. I was with some colleagues at his official residence and almost half the time of our two-hour breakfast interview was devoted to the upcoming event. I found him giving his encounter with Mr. Bush at the White House the utmost importance, although he did not let the cat out of his travel bag over the issues he will raise there.

Seeing Prime Minister Erdogan but getting so little out of his mouth on a matter of such importance is a result of my weakness as a journalist, I humbly confess. So I will make up what I failed at by giving my prudent assessments of his intentions for the visit.

The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party government has been putting maximum importance on Turkey''s relations with the U.S. Some in Turkey take this determined choice as a result of political convenience, but I rather doubt it. Mr. Erdogan sent his son and two daughters to study in the U.S. and his appreciation of American values is honest. He believes the importance of the alliance and he is sincerely unhappy about the shaky state of affairs emanating from the failed March 2003 resolution which would have opened Turkish territory to American troops on their way to Iraq. Erdogan''s eagerness to visit Mr. Bush at home has something to do with his wish to mend fences.

This is where my trepidation reaches its highest level. Erdogan is no doubt sincere about restoring the somehow wounded alliance to its proper place, but his ability to maneuver is limited due to the image problem of his host. Many in Turkey, including those who initially supported Turkey''s involvement in America''s Iraq adventure, feel free to profess that they were wrong. Turkey is better placed now to affect regional developments, it can give better support to the U.S. so that the things in Iraq will not get astray radically, and is at the same time reaping political benefits from its refusal to give the U.S. carte blanche to use Turkish territory for an invasion without international legitimacy.

The U.S. administration may very well want to see some rulers disappear in the Middle East, and Mr. Bush would like to take advantage of every assistance Turkey can provide to achieve this goal. A small warning: it is my contention that a repetition of an attempt to revive the resolution of March 1, this time around for Syria or Iran, would also bring a repetition of the same sad process all over again. Even a politician as powerful and brave as Mr. Erdogan cannot deliver Washington''s maximum agenda.

Of course the U.S. is at the pinnacle of its military might and it can apply force whenever it deems necessary. Because of this Mr. Bush is not liked but feared globally, and the U.S. military might reinforces all the negative feelings one can imagine in the hearts and minds of the world community. The revelation that the U.S. guards in Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran, holy book of the Muslims, demolished the last remnants of its already troubled image. Prime Minister Erdogan, by visiting Washington in the middle of the Koran desecration controversy, is taking a great risk over his political future in Turkey.

I hope President Bush and his close associates understand the realities: A successful Turkey is more valuable to the U.S. The success of Turkey lies with its current status: i.e. being a close ally to the States, aspiring to become a member of the European Union, keeping close ties with the Islamic world, and using its historic bonds with countries stretching from the Balkans and Caucasus to Central Asia and the Middle East. A Turkey lacking its natural strategic depth is no use to no one, including the U.S. This is reality number one.

Reality number two has more to do with Turkey''s present political situation: The AK Party government is still popular, and people see no reason to withdraw the credit they gave to it in two successive elections. The opposition in Turkey does not gain from political bickering, and every new development buttresses the people''s conviction that the AK Party needs more support to fight against the established order. Contrary to gloomy anticipations, the two-and-half-year AK Party tenure has not eradicated the popularity of Erdogan and his government.

During our interview in his residence I inquired about the issues he is taking to Washington, what he will discuss with his host, and his expectations from the meeting. Mr. Erdogan related only the titles of topics which are very broad-spectrum really, and added that he would keep "private topics" just that, private.

Mr. Erdogan has arrived in Washington and his meeting with Mr. Bush is scheduled for tomorrow. Let us cross our fingers that everything goes smoothly.

I appreciate what he is doing. He is really a brave man.

From The New Anatolian, June 7, 2005

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