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Will Turkey Remain an American Ally?

The headline stories from WikiLeaks of the last few days have focused attention on American foreign policy, with a particular focus on the strains within and with historic allies.

The central role of Turkey in these revelations has caused further apprehension in U.S.-Turkish relations at an already tense moment in the alliance. Given the actions of Ankara this summer with regard to both Israel and Iran, a powerful narrative has emerged in which the West has "lost" Turkey.

The rise of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Muslim worldview as the dominant and unrivaled force in Turkish politics, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's successful approval of a Sept. 12 constitutional referendum, has only heightened fears among many in Washington. Rather than seeing further democratization in Turkey and noting the domestic pressures facing a populist AKP government, they see a final nail in the coffins of the military and secular elites that once protected U.S. interests. So former friends of Turkey have concluded that Ankara has become a turncoat to the West by switching sides from the historic U.S.-Turkey alliance.

This would be a grave misreading of Turkey and, worse, could bolster the very internal forces the West fears. It will give credence to their assertions that Turkey can never be part of the West and encourage Turkey to move its foreign policy in a more extreme direction. It risks demonizing Turkey precisely when Washington should be coordinating policies with Ankara. There is cause for concern that the U.S.-Turkish relationship has reached a critical juncture, but that all is not lost, yet.

America has recently elected a more conservative Congress, and Turkey has been seen recently as anything but a "model partner" to the U.S. Ankara's rhetoric and behavior on Iran and Israel have caused anger and confusion in Washington, as evidenced by WikiLeaks. The links between U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy have rarely been understood in Turkey, and have become increasingly difficult for Turks to understand in light of recent events. At the recent NATO summit in Lisbon, Turkey was seen as one of America's greatest problems regarding missile defense and broader divergences in strategic concepts about the threats confronting the transatlantic community.

Turkish officials insist that their new foreign policy represents only a difference in tactics, and not ends, regarding Washington. However, they clearly have not internalized that the Obama administration sees preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as one of its primary strategic goals in the region, along with containing such non-state actors as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Despite its "No" vote at the U.N., Ankara insists it will uphold the letter of the law concerning sanctions on Iran. But given Turkey's efforts to triple trade with Iran, many in Washington complain that Ankara is undermining the intention of the sanctions.

Turkey should work with the U.S., given that a nuclear Iran, with proxy allies in the region, would be a long-term destabilizing factor that would ultimately change the region's strategic calculus, which currently favors Ankara's considerable economic incentives for stability and conventional military advantage over its competitors. Perhaps even more damagingly, it would dangerously alter Ankara's relationship with Washington.

Turkey is at the center of one of the most critical regions, and recent changes to the country and the region have only heightened the country's confidence on a global stage.

With the world's second-fastest growing economy -- after only China -- in the second quarter of 2010, Turkey is clearly no longer a backwater but a regional hub defining dynamic change in its neighborhood. As the head of the Council of Europe, NATO member, G-20 founding member, U.N Security Council member, European Union aspirant and head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ankara has transformed itself into a more autonomous actor.

However, with greater influence comes greater responsibility. While there are real causes for concern, it is clear that Turkey continues to offer the U.S. numerous opportunities for strategic cooperation and thus remains a critically important partner for the U.S. Relations between Turkey and the U.S. have always been dynamic. So turbulence in U.S.-Turkish relations should be expected in the short-term but ignored only at America's peril.

It would be foolish to write off Turkey's important strategic role and the degree to which America's and Turkey's long-term interests will still converge more than they diverge. While Turkey may not be the model partner that we had hoped for, neither is it a turncoat that has been irrevocably lost.

Joshua W. Walker is a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University.

Originally published by Providence Journal