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Ascendant Turkey Takes on West, Says Open to All

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (left) and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (right) at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum in Istanbul, 10 Jun 2010

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perhaps the loudest voice of outrage against the raid by former ally Israel of an aid ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza. He has also led his country's defiance of long-standing partner, the United States, in a vote against new sanctions on Iran. Mr. Erdogan says there is no change in foreign policy, simply that Turkey will no longer "be taken for granted."

It has been a busy week for Mr. Erdogan. He has already hosted a slew of dignitaries at an Asian security conference, and is now at a forum intended to strengthen economic ties with his Arab neighbors.

In between, he took time to help spread Turkey's influence on the international linguistic front.

The prime minister sits front and center at the Turkish Language Olympics, a celebration of students of the mother tongue from Moldova to the Maldives. It is a cultural reach nearly as ambitious as the political one.

A young Afghan woman takes part in the Turkish Language Olympics, part of Turkey's outreach to the rest of the world in Istanbul, 09 Jun 2010
A young Afghan woman takes part in the Turkish Language Olympics, part of Turkey's outreach to the rest of the world in Istanbul, 09 Jun 2010

And just as emotional. As a young Afghan woman recites poetry of the hardship in her country, Mr. Erdogan's wife, Emine, openly weeps.

Sympathy for the suffering of others was the stated goal of Turkey's backing of the ill-fated Gaza aid convoy last week. And it is the stated goal to help, not hurt, that is central to Turkey's argument against new sanctions on Iran.

At the economic forum, Mr. Erdogan argued that arms embargoes and exclusion are not working. He said the world has paid a heavy price, citing Iraq and Afghanistan and the suffering there.

Battle cry

He called out for diplomacy, again and again. The word, it seems, is the prime minister's battle cry. And he uses it to lead the charge for better relations in Asia, Europe and Africa. Even South America is not immune to the offensive, with Brazil last month helping Turkey broker a nuclear deal with Iran.

Hugh Pope is the project director for Turkey at the International Crisis Group. He says that as the Turkish government sides with Iran and castigates Israel, it should be mindful of overreach.

"Turkey has to be very careful to realize that the support it has in the Muslim world is based on the idea that Turkey has more than one foot in the European and Western camp and they will transmit the Muslim concerns to Western councils. And if Turkey loses the ability to be taken seriously in the West, it will become an ineffectual player," said Pope.

The country literally straddles two worlds, European and Asian, and as the former seat of the Ottoman empire, and the Byzantine before it, has ties deep and wide. All of them work to boost Mr. Erdogan's claim to making his country a true leader.

But at the same time, Turkey has trouble fitting in: Muslim but not Arab; a secular state, it is a far cry from its ally the Islamic Republic of Iran. And although a member of NATO and Istanbul is this year's Cultural Capital of Europe, Turkey's path to joining the European Union is steep.

Mr. Erdogan, described variously as charismatic and domineering, tells the audience at the economic forum that there are those who throw obstacles in Turkey's way. He speaks darkly of ulterior motives. Later, he speaks of those with "dirty hands."

And those are just the Europeans. Turkey was close to war with Syria less than a decade ago. It still faces problems with ethnic Kurds both at home and in neighboring Iraq. Add in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Turkey's near neighbors turn out to be an unsteady lot.

Hugh Pope says those precarious conditions are why Turkey is self-consciously trying to create structures, both political and economic, to foster peace.

"You can see visa-free travel, efforts to integrate railways and oil pipelines, free trade agreements, and joint cabinet meetings," he said. "And all these are aimed to create, first, stability, then prosperity, which obviously will profit Turkey and then ultimately it hopes to have a less rough neighborhood to live in."

Economic benefits

The economic benefits, at least for Turkey, have already proved strong. With an annual growth rate of more than six percent, Turkey's economy is among the top 10 in Europe and, by 2023, it aims to reach that rank worldwide.

As much as its efficient economic policies are helping with its remarkable growth, Turkey's very geography is a boon. The country is a key link in the Nabucco pipeline, Europe's great hope to escape the current Russian chokehold on its natural gas supplies. Its mountains, beaches and storied history serve as a tourist magnet for Europeans and Middle Easterners alike.

As for Mr. Erdogan's effort to promote peace without further enflaming an already volatile Middle East, that is a work-in-progress being keenly monitored from Tehran to Washington.