THE BLOG

Turkey and the West: Everybody Take a Valium

Over the past week, there's been a lot of talk over how the West has "lost" Turkey. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to be buying into this line of thinking.

Yes, Ankara condemned Israel's raid on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, and yes, Turkey voted against imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran. But this doesn't mean Turkey and the West have parted ways.

First things first -- Turkey's stance on Gaza hardly splits it off from the West. British Prime Minister David Cameron called the raid "completely unacceptable," and he, along with the presidents of France and the United States, wants an investigation into the raid and has called on Israel to loosen its Gaza blockade.

It's true that Turkey has been strongly critical of Israel since its 2008-09 incursion into Gaza, but this doesn't mean it or its leadership is anti-Israel. In fact, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan doggedly pursued Middle East peace before the Gaza incursion, working for two years to try and stage-manage a rapprochement between Israel and Syria. This effort had to be shelved after Israeli troops entered Gaza.

If anything, Erdogan's increasingly shrill pronouncements on Israel reflect his frustration with the Netanyahu government, whose actions lengthened considerably the odds of achieving Middle East peace in the near future and made it nearly impossible for Erdogan to return to his preferred role as Middle Eastern mediator. Turkey's government is not the only one frustrated with Tel Aviv -- Hillary Clinton's 40-minute phone call with the Israeli prime minister earlier this year makes this fairly clear.

One issue on which Turkey certainly does disagree with Western capitals is Iran. But we need to recognize that Turkey is friends with Iran for one reason alone -- it buys a lot of its oil from there. Turkey would most likely prefer not to rely wholly on its other major oil supplier, Russia, because its reliability as an energy supplier has been questionable of late.

This is likely the chief reason it has joined Brazil in casting a token vote at the Security Council against a new round of sanctions.

If this is the split we're looking for, then yes -- we have learned Turkey will not put its vital interests at risk to vote for a resolution that it knew was going to pass anyway, and a resolution many Western observers doubt will do anything to restrain Tehran.

Let's not forget how useful it could be to have an ally that's on good terms with and has diplomats on the ground in Tehran. Turkey may prove to be a useful source of information on the state of Iran's regime and its nuclear program, much as Britain and Canada supplied Washington with useful intelligence on Cuba after Eisenhower severed ties with the Castro regime in 1960.

We cannot expect Turkey to continue the foreign policy it adopted in the Cold War, when it was little more than a U.S. satellite. No matter how accommodating the West is, Turkey will want to take advantage of its historical ties to the Middle East and Central Asia in addition to its connection to Europe and North America.

Washington's central challenge is not to turn back the clock and keep Turkey firmly in its orbit. Rather, it needs to ensure that, whatever ties Turkey pursues with its neighbors and whatever initiatives it pursues on the world stage, it remains a broadly pro-Western, liberal power, strongly committed to the NATO alliance. The eventual collapse of Turkey's bid for EU membership will make this goal more difficult to achieve, but it is by no means impossible.

Allies don't stop being allies just because they disagree on select issues. Canada, France and Germany all refused to send troops to Iraq, but few would say they are no longer American allies because of it. One vote in the Security Council and a less nuanced stance on Gaza is not enough evidence to conclude the West has lost Turkey.