On February 25 and 26 George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, visited the Turkish capital of Ankara on his second tour of the region to discuss the future of peace initiatives in the area. Mitchell’s visit is to be followed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to a Gaza donors’ conference in Egypt on March 2. Mitchell held meetings with Turkish officials, including President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, and discussed Turkey’s contributions to the peace process, as well as bilateral issues between Turkey and the United States.
Although Mitchell had been expected to go to Turkey during his first visit to the region, he was unable to do so, according to the American Embassy in Ankara, because of technical reasons and scheduling issues. Turkish sources critical of the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Middle East policies maintained that the postponement might have been a rebuke by Washington for Turkey’s pro-Hamas policies during the Gaza conflict and its aftermath, especially Erdogan’s confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos. Foreign Ministry officials denied those speculations, saying that the visit would take place in the future (Milliyet, January 31).
The trip and the surrounding circumstances offer signs of a thawing of relations between Turkey and the United States. Statements from American diplomats with regard to Mitchell’s visit to Ankara emphasized Washington’s appreciation of Turkey’s prior diplomatic efforts. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey told reporters that Turkey had played a key role in many crisis spots in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. Jeffrey also emphasized that Washington supported these initiatives and was willing to seek coordination with Ankara (Anadolu Ajansi, February 25).
Following his meetings in Ankara, Mitchell told reporters that Washington viewed Turkey as a key partner for Obama’s peace efforts in the Middle East. "As an important democratic nation with strong relations with Israel, [Turkey] has a unique role to play and can have significant influence on our efforts to promote a comprehensive peace in the Middle East…. It is important for us now to look forward and to work together to build a secure, prosperous future for all of the people of this region." Mitchell also reaffirmed Washington’s support for Ankara’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace and two-state solution (Anadolu Ajansi, February 26; Today’s Zaman, February 27).
Foreign Minister Babacan had a telephone conversation with Clinton ahead of the Gaza donors’ conference. They reportedly had a warm conversation, and Clinton expressed her support for Turkey’s leading role in the region. The two politicians will meet during the conference in Egypt; and Clinton may visit Ankara following the conference, but an exact date for the trip has yet to be confirmed (Hurriyet Daily News, February 26).
The Turkish media’s coverage of recent developments appears to support the government’s arguments that the new administration in Washington may not be troubled by the recent course of Turkish diplomacy in the Middle East. Following Turkey’s harsh criticism of Israeli policies and its departure from transatlantic consensus on controversial issues, Western observers have been debating whether Turkey was "lost" to the West and, if so, who lost it. One line of criticism maintains that the AKP government’s growing orientation toward the Middle East and its independent foreign policy are a result of its roots in Islamist politics. Therefore they argue that through its pro-Hamas attitude, Turkey has lost its neutrality and can no longer play a mediating role in Israel’s problems with its neighbors.
Other observers instead refer to the misguided U.S. policies during the Bush administration, which alienated Ankara along with many other allies, as the major reason for the occasional divergence of positions. Moreover, they point to a determination on the part of Ankara to pursue a more autonomous foreign policy that better reflects Turkish national interests. Regarding Turkey’s policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they maintain that Israel’s excessive use of force mobilized social groups across the political spectrum, and Ankara’s criticism of Israel cannot be reduced to the AKP’s parochial ideological orientation.
The AKP government too has been seeking to present its policies in the Middle East as driven by the country’s national interests and reflective of a broader consensus in society. The declared American approval of Turkey’s role in the Middle East seemingly supports the AKP’s previous arguments about the correctness of its stance. It still remains unclear, however, how far Washington will go along with Turkey’s leadership role in the region.
A major driving theme of the Turkish government’s policy during the Israeli offensive in Gaza was its argument that Hamas should be part of any attempt to find a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. Erdogan repeatedly stressed that he would be a major advocate of the Palestinians in international forums (EDM, January 5). During Mitchell’s discussions in Ankara, he was again told by Erdogan that exclusion of Hamas from U.S. initiatives would not be realistic. Erdogan noted that since Hamas came to power, Turkey had encouraged it to follow more peaceful policies and claimed that Hamas had made some progress in that regard. Erdogan asked the United States to approach all parties from an equal distance and respect Hamas as an elected government (Cihan Haber Ajansi, February 26).
By sending signals that it is ready to coordinate with Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives, Obama’s foreign policy team is showing that it is prepared to cooperate with regional allies and will take their interests into account. Whether it will also take their opinions into account, however, is quite another issue. The extent to which Washington is willing to negotiate with Hamas as a shareholder in the Middle East peace process and reconstruction of Gaza may also provide a real test of how far it appreciates Ankara’s new foreign policy orientation.