On December 1, 2009, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama announced his long-deliberated strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan. Ultimately, Obama's decision could make or break his presidency.
Less than one hour after the President's speech, on December 7, 2009, the date of an indelible war memory in the United States, Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the White House. The Turkish Prime Minister was hosted after Obama's Afghanistan initiative before any other foreign leader. And thereby hangs a tale.
For good or for ill, modern United States presidents are defined by their success or failure in matters of war and peace. These issues overwhelm domestic issues. President Obama may hope that universal health care, climate change, and jobs will be the signature of his administration. But he knows that his re-election and place in history will pivot on national security: the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and against international terrorism, thwarting the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, jawboning for peace in the Middle East, and reconciling Islam with western democracy.
In all of Obama endeavors, Turkey's collaboration is imperative. Turkey is the most important majority-Muslim nation contributing troops and training forces in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Currently, Turkish Brigadier General Levent Çolak is the ISAF Regional Commander for the Afghan Capital area. Jihadists feed on the perception that the United States is fighting Islam, not international terrorism. Turkey's participation in ISAF assists in discrediting that terrorist recruiting slogan. It complements Obama's "new beginning with the Muslim world--one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity."
Turkey is a mainstay of the civilian reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. It leads a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak. Turkish companies are involved in building roads, schools, and clinics. Turkey enjoys longstanding friendship with Afghanistan. And its civilian aid helps to blunt India's influence in Afghanistan, which frightens and distracts Pakistan from defeating Taliban and al Qaeda there.
Turkey is also a cornerstone of Obama's strategy in Iraq. President Obama elaborated after meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister, "We discussed our joint role in helping Iraq achieve the kind of independence and prosperity that I think has been advanced as a consequence of the election law finally being passed over the week." Turkey is on the same page with the United States in favoring a unified Iraq. It provides use of the Incirlik air base, land corridors in and out of Iraq, and a significant portion of United States military cargo headed for Iraq transit Turkey in the air or on the ground. Turkey is a key player in resolving the Arab-Kurd-Turkmen combustible stalemate over oil-rich Kirkuk, which could spark an Iraqi civil war. There is no conflict in the Euro-Asia region, whether it is Russian bases in Armenia, Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan territory, Georgia-Russian conflict, national unity and stability of Iraq, Syria Israel conflict, Palestinian Israeli conflict, divided island of Cyprus, Greece-Macedonia conflict, independence of Kosovo issue, security of the Black Sea region, that can be resolved without the strong and positive contribution of Turkey.
Tensions and conflict in the Middle East over a Palestinian State and normalizing relations between Israel and its neighbors also fuel international terrorism. President Obama has devoted major diplomatic resources to finding a solution, including several trips there by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell. Turkey's relations with Israel are a benchmark for Israel's Arab neighbors. After meeting with Obama, Prime Minister Erdogan related: "[W]e stand ready as Turkey to do whatever we can do with respect to relations between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria, because I do believe that first and foremost, the United States, too, has important responsibility in trying to achieve global peace."
Nuclear non-proliferation is high on President Obama's national and global security agenda. Turkey will be instrumental in advancing Obama's non-proliferation agenda as regards Iran. After meeting with Erdogan, Obama acknowledged, "I indicated to the Prime Minister how important it is to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capacity in a way that allows Iran to pursue peaceful nuclear energy but provides assurances that it will abide by international rules and norms, and I believe that Turkey can be an important player in trying to move Iran in that direction." Turkey and Iran have historical ties that extend a millennium and these ties can and should be used for the benefit of peace and prosperity in the region as an antidote to extremism and hateful rhetoric.
In sum, Obama's legacy very much depends on Turkey.
Bruce Fein is a resident scholar with the Turkish Coalition of America.