Turkish President Abdullah Gul came and went last week without attracting much attention, which is not unusual for a friendly head of state visiting Washington. But Gul's visit to the White House for lunch with President Bush -- and even his failure to prompt any headlines -- marked a dramatic turnaround in one of the most important U.S. foreign relationships, and a quiet success by an outgoing administration in cleaning up one of its own messes.
By now Americans are painfully aware of the country's drastic loss of standing around the world during George W. Bush's presidency. But a comeback of sorts is underway as the administration winds down, and Turkey is a big part of it. The Muslim nation of 71 million, a NATO member that borders both the European Union and Iraq, passed, in the course of just a couple of years, from ranking as one of the most stalwart U.S. allies to one of the most resentful, with a burning popular fever of anti-Americanism. Now, thanks to some deft diplomacy, an unexpected show of responsibility by the U.S. Congress and one tough decision by Bush, ties are more or less back to where they were before 2001.
"The relationship has come full circle, which feels like a good thing considering where we have been," says Mark Parris, a former ambassador to Turkey who now watches relations from the Brookings Institution. "It means the next administration, at least, will inherit a normal relationship."
That sentiment was happily confirmed by Gul, a genial and astute politician who served four years as foreign minister before his election as president last summer. "These challenges are behind us," he said during a visit to The Post. "We share the same values -- democracy, human rights, the functioning of the free market. We are working together jointly for the same goals in the region." Gul went so far as to predict a turnaround in public opinion in Turkey, where the approval ratings of the United States was in single digits as recently as the summer: "This sentiment the polls are showing is not directed at the values we share, and it is not directed at Americans."
Gul and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were the leading architects of the Turkish-American reconstruction. Gul, the second most powerful figure of the ruling Justice and Development Party after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was scapegoated by senior U.S. officials in early 2003 when the Turkish parliament failed to grant permission for an American Army division to cross its territory for the invasion of Iraq. Rice was then the national security adviser of an administration that arrogantly took an old ally for granted, disregarding its legitimate concerns about Iraq and pressing Erodgan's government to make a commitment contrary to overwhelming Turkish opinion only weeks after it had won its first national election.
Yet, when Rice became secretary of state in 2005 she made Turkey a stop on her first foreign trip, making clear that rebuilding the alliance would be a priority. Gul was ready; as he recalls it, he asked Rice to make a list of her most important priorities, then made one of his own. "We had the same concerns," he said, "Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Kosovo and the Balkans, the Middle East." And by and large, they wanted the same outcomes.
The biggest sticking point was not Iraq per se, but the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group operating in Turkey that took advantage of the war to establish new bases inside Iraq. For four years Erdogan's government asked the United States, as the principal military power in Baghdad, to do something about the PKK. The Pentagon repeatedly declined.
Relations reached a near crisis last fall when a spate of PKK attacks killed dozens of Turks. Finally, on Nov. 5, Bush met Erdogan at the White House and made a long-overdue decision: The United States would share tactical intelligence on the PKK positions with Turkey and tolerate attacks on Iraqi territory. Several raids have followed, pronounced a success by the Turks. Meanwhile, the other major irritant in the relationship -- a House resolution pronouncing the massacre of Armenians in Turkey at the end of World War I a "genocide" -- was reluctantly pulled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi under pressure from fellow Democrats.
While all this was going on, Turkey changed. Erdogan's party, which has Islamist roots, proved it could take over a secular government without infringing on democracy or civil rights. Last spring the prospect of Gul as president almost provoked a military coup; following an election convincingly won by his party, his mandate is now accepted. At the White House, Bush said the conversation was "what you'd expect when two friends are in the same room together." Maybe so -- but as this administration learned the hard way, even close friends cannot be taken for granted.