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November 03, 2011, Thursday

41 times maşallah!

When things are going very well, Turks traditionally say “41 times maşallah!” to keep the evil eye away. Given the state of Turkish-US official relations lately, I feel that we should all say that together.

Gone are the angry private exchanges of the last year between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after Turkey's stunning “no” vote on UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Concern about Turkey potentially switching axis and moving away from the West -- or at least open talk of this concern -- has considerably diminished in Washington. Suddenly we find ourselves in what I call the Turkish-American Spring. But is this real? I mean, really real?

No change can come out of the blue. We owe today's positive atmosphere in US-Turkish relations to many factors, first and foremost, an increasingly humbled US, due to serious economic and foreign policy problems. No matter how irritating the Turks may sometimes be, Turkey has become an indispensable player in its strategically critical neighborhood, if not in the world, and the US has to live with that. Similarly, despite occasional American acts of arrogance, Ankara's need to maintain the influential US as a regional and global partner is also more than evident. Consequently, we are witnessing a honeymoon between two governments unlike anything perhaps since the end of the Cold War. But to a great extent this is a marriage of convenience, with the potential for serious future difficulties or even another breakup, especially in the event the current residents of the White House are ousted next year.

Is the recent Turkish-American Spring a result of well-organized, long-term efforts that have enhanced mutual understanding and deepened the two countries' respective knowledge of each other? Or are Turkey and the US just beginning to discover and get to know each other with a refreshed outlook? I would say that they are in the process of discovery. The longer this process goes on, the faster they can reach the point described in my first question above, although this, of course, will depend upon conditions on the ground in our highly unpredictable world. Despite a long history of political relations, these two nations and their governments are still embarrassingly ignorant about each other. And ignorance is the worst enemy of any relationship.

What have we learned from the experiences of the past year? The greater the number of common threats or enemies, the better the US and Turkey get along. I suppose that's an outcome of persistently masculine bilateral relations, a habit lingering from the Cold War days. Turkey's recent moves to distance itself from Iran (by agreeing to host NATO's missile defense radar) and Syria (by writing off the Assad regime) have appealed to the US government the most. Even Ankara's seriously deteriorated relations with Israel have not completely spoiled the party mood in the US national security establishment, which traditionally calls on Turkey to maintain good relations with Israel. Similarly for the Turkish side, more than anything else it is the improved US support in the fight against Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism that is making the biggest difference.

Relations largely based on security are easily broken, unless they are cushioned by softer ingredients. That's why reasonable minds in Turkey and the US are pressing for investing in economic, cultural and educational ties. Actually this has been a main theme of top American and Turkish leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the American Turkish Council's (ATC) annual conference this week. Interestingly, Turkey's soft power has proven very effective in promoting the democratic awakening in Middle Eastern and North African nations, which the US sees as an asset. Increasing in number and effectiveness, many Turkish civil society groups are active in the US as well. The problem is that they easily get lost in the vastness of the American landscape. On another front, American soft power in Turkey is often constrained by a poor public image of the US government, which Turkey has in common with the rest of the region. I still don't see enough interest on the part of American civil society in engaging with Turkey, and I'm afraid that isolationist tendencies and economic difficulties in the US will make this even less likely in the near future.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to ruin the party here. Personally, I'm happy with the huge progress that has been made in US-Turkish relations recently. However, joy should not prevent us from seeing certain realities. This relationship cannot be taken for granted, and it will require a fairly high level of maintenance for the foreseeable future. Both Turkish and American leaders must always keep this in mind and continue what they have been doing lately, that is to say, pursuing unfettered access and intense dialogue with an open mind.

Certainly there are things that can be accomplished in the short run. And there will be hurdles, whether cultural or instigated by external forces in the region, which will remain very challenging. Under these circumstances, it's always safer to keep expectations from becoming too high, so that no one is hugely disappointed again in the event that we hit another wall; for example, such a scenario would not be totally inconceivable if Iraq were to fall apart. Provided there is a strong commitment not only to daily business but also to making fundamental modifications to the overall structure of the relationship, I believe the US and Turkey may one day live up to their utmost potential for mutual understanding and cooperation. That day, we will say “41 times maşallah!” even more boldly.

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