Resisting Turkey's Lurch to Saudis; Obama's Visit Opens Door to Improved Relations

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Byline: Elliot Hen-Tov and Joshua Walker, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to a Muslim-majority nation during his two days in Turkey early this week. Turkey was a wise choice, and if relations with Russia are to receive a reset, U.S.-Turkish relations are in need of a serious upgrade. Mr. Obama's visit came at a critical juncture in U.S.-Turkish relations and represented a golden opportunity for both allies to take the relationship to a higher level.

The Turkey of today is a very different place from the moderate Islamic model former President George W. Bush touted five years ago. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been riding a wave of popular sentiment that blends a previously irreconcilable mix of religious and secular nationalism. In this context, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dramatic walkout at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, his call for Israel to be removed from the United Nations, and his posturing against an International Monetary Fund agreement to help Turkey weather the economic crisis illustrate the potential repercussions if Turkey were to detach completely from its Western anchors.

In 2009, such a detachment, combined with populism, could be disastrous. In normal times, Turkey's new appeal in the Islamic world could complement its economic needs by finding new sources of finance and opening new markets.

However, Turkey has a structural current-account deficit that has been financed by foreign direct investment flows, which have ebbed with the credit crisis and will not return. The Turkish lira is down almost 50 percent from last summer, industrial production has plummeted more than 20 percent, and government forecasts of economic output still look too rosy. Part of that is explained by established markets punishing all emerging markets indiscriminately. However, Turkish policy has exacerbated a dire situation.

In the lead-up to the March 29 municipal elections, which the AKP won easily, Mr. Erdogan has been fiscally irresponsible and has dithered over a crucial Turkey-IMF agreement.

Oddly, Turkey has become more European, more democratic, more Islamic and increasingly more nationalist simultaneously. Today, Turkey's identity and survival are not entirely bound up in the West. It is not just Islamist political power, Turkey's diplomatic efforts in the region, or the sense that Turkey, with its newly minted seat on the U.N. Security Council, is a player. It is all of these things. Without abandoning its European Union membership, Ankara's engagement with its neighbors to the south and east, including Syria and Iran, has garnered the Turks newfound regional prestige. …