Turkey's Ties Raise Concerns In Washington

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits President Obama at the White House Monday. Turkey is building stronger ties with Iran and that has raised concerns in Washington. Also the prime minister heads a party with Islamist roots — a departure from decades of secular leadership in Turkey. That has some asking if the NATO member is titling East at the expense of the West.

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President Obama meets today with the leader of a long-time U.S. ally. Turkey has backed the United States since the early days of the Cold War. It is positioned between the nations of Europe and Asia. It has served as a bridge between the two, though Americans have lately worried about just who's crossing. The prime minister, who is at White House today, heads a party with Islamist roots. The United States is hoping for more Turkish help with Afghanistan, though the Turks say they're already doing enough. And Turkey has been friendlier with some of its neighbors than the U.S. might like.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS: East or West - a question often asked about Turkey, as if the country could change its geography, with part of its land mass in Europe and its southern border in the Middle East.

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AMOS: East and West plays out here culturally in the choices of street musicians�

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AMOS: �and in Turkey's history as the head of the Ottoman Empire.

Mr. HENRI BARKEY (Middle East Expert, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace): I don't know if we would call it the Ottomans are back.

AMOS: That's Henri Barkey at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. He says Turkey is establishing a new forceful foreign policy, engaging Middle East neighbors, establishing the country as a powerbroker in the region because of more recent history.

Mr. BARKEY: Because they are the 17th largest economy in the world, because of their relations with the E.U., because of NATO, because of their cultural affinity and historical past, they think that they can play (unintelligible) in the region.

AMOS: Ankara calls the new strategy zero problems with the neighbors. Some recent examples: A historic opening to Armenia, high-level cooperation with Syria, important trade links with Iraq. But the budding friendship with Iran has dismayed Western allies at a time when Washington is trying to shut down Iran's nuclear program. Last month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Tehran to sign gas and business deals that would triple trade links. The prime minister called Iran's president Ahmadinejad his good friend, which raised questions, not just in Washington.

Ms. YASMIN CHANGAR(ph): As for Iran, I mean, I was also very critical about the invitation to Ahmadinejad and the celebration of his presidency.

AMOS: That's journalist Yasmin Changar, critical of way policy is carried out, but like many here, supportive of Turkey's new role.

Ms. CHANGAR: When you talk to the Turkish officials, it's not because they are madly in love with the Iranian regime. They don't even like Ahmadinejad so much. But they want to be talking to Ahmadinejad, and they believe that this gives them a tool. Look, you cannot talk to Ahmadinejad directly, but I can.

AMOS: Turkey's prime minister is likely to point out at the White House that this tool makes him a more valuable ally with the same goals. Washington is likely to remind the prime minister that the point is to deliver hard truth to Tehran. And others in Washington question Turkey's approach, especially with Israel, where relations are strained, says Omer Taspinar, head of the Turkey Project at Brookings.

Dr. OMER TASPINAR (Director, Turkey Project, Brookings Institution): I think the region gets it that there is a new Turkey now, and they like it. But the Europeans and the Americans are not 100 percent they like the new Turkey that they see.

AMOS: This new Turkey is more aggressive in establishing commercial ties, abolishing visas for freer travel in the region, standing as a model for integrating Islam and democracy says Hugh Pope, a long-time Turkish specialist with the International Crisis Group. He's based in Istanbul.

Mr. HUGH POPE (Istanbul Representative, International Crisis Group): I see a lot of positive aspects to what Turkey is doing. There's Turkey, quietly putting the pieces in place for a more integrated Middle East.

AMOS: There is much that Washington and Ankara can agree on in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, says Pope. And he says Turkey remains the historic bridge between East and West, but with its own strong, national interest in the region.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul.

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