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Mr. Obama and Turkey

Wednesday 8 April 2009, by NYT

President Obama has wisely decided to visit Turkey during his first official trip to Europe. The United States needs Turkey’s cooperation — in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with Iran and efforts to broker Middle East peace. But there are also very worrying trends in Turkey’s relationship with Europe and its internal politics.

Mr. Obama must do all he can to help reverse those trends and anchor Turkey more firmly in the West.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored an impressive re-election in 2007 after pursuing market-oriented policies that brought economic growth and more trade ties with the European Union. That conservative Muslim party also expanded human rights and brought Turkish law closer to European standards.

Those reforms have since stalled — partly because of opposition from civilian nationalists and generals who still wield too much clout. (The trial of 86 people accused of plotting a military coup is a reminder of the dark side of Turkish politics.) But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems to have lost enthusiasm for the European Union bid and the reforms that are the price of admission. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has been especially unhelpful, making clear that he will do all he can to keep Turkey out of the European Union. Mr. Obama must persuade Mr. Sarkozy and others that admitting Turkey — a Muslim democracy — is in everyone’s interest. And he must persuade Ankara that the required reforms will strengthen Turkey’s democracy and provide more stability and growth.

We are concerned about Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. His government’s decision to slap the media mogul Aydin Dogan with a $500 million tax bill smacks of retaliation against an independent press that has successfully exposed government corruption. Ankara’s willingness to help rebuild schools in Afghanistan is welcome. But the situation there is dire, and NATO also needs more troops and needs access to Turkish military bases to facilitate the transport of American soldiers and equipment into Afghanistan and out of Iraq.

Ankara has played a positive role, mediating indirect talks between Israel and Syria. With Washington’s encouragement, Mr. Erdogan could also use his relationships with Iran, Sudan and Hamas to encourage improved behavior.

Turkey’s cooperation with Iraqi Kurds has vastly improved. There are also reports that Turkey and Armenia may soon normalize relations.

We have long criticized Turkey for its self-destructive denial of the World War I era mass killing of Armenians. But while Congress is again contemplating a resolution denouncing the genocide, it would do a lot more good for both Armenia and Turkey if it held back. Mr. Obama, who vowed in the presidential campaign to recognize the event as genocide, should also forbear.

The Bush administration’s disastrous war in Iraq fanned a destructive anti-Americanism in Turkey. Mr. Obama’s visit is likely to soothe hostile feelings. But he must go beyond that to secure a relationship with an important ally and an important democracy in danger of backsliding.

NYT Editorial, April 3, 2009

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