Front-row concept

THE BUSH administration loves the idea of Turkey. Here's an American ally in the Middle East, a Muslim democracy, an Islamic country that by rights should be about to join the European Union, and a frontline state on both the Caucasus and Iraq. But is love blind? Turkey as a concept is perfect. Turkey as an actual country is a lot more complicated.

The problem is not that Washington takes Turkey for granted. The problem is that Washington tends to make quick assumptions about Turkey that have a way of not panning out - and this did not begin, by the way, with the current administration.


In the 1990s, it was a given that Turkey would organize and manage the West's outreach to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, most of which share a Turkic heritage. It never happened.

In 2002, Washington got busy pushing for Turkey's entry into the European Union, which, it was thought, would tie the Turks more closely to the West. But this met with stubborn resistance in Europe. Many Turks believe Christian Europe doesn't want to have a Muslim in the camp, and they are prepared to turn their backs on Europe altogether if rebuffed. Europe, to some extent, may be guilty as charged, but there is also widespread concern over Turkey's dismal record on human rights. A European delegation headed to Ankara last week for more talks; Turkey wants a decision this year.


Eleven months ago, the administration promised Turkey a $4 billion user fee to allow U.S. troops access to Iraq. The Turkish parliament wouldn't be bought.

This fall, Washington engineered a deal to send Turkish troops to Baghdad, neglecting the antipathy Iraqis feel toward their former colonial masters. Iraq said no.

This spring, the administration will have to strike a deal offering some form of autonomy to Iraqi Kurds, who also would like to take control of the oil fields in their part of the country. Turkey, which fears a renewed uprising by its own, much larger Kurdish population, has threatened to intervene if necessary - and not in a friendly way.

The United States believes that Turkish democracy should be an inspiration to its neighbors. It's noteworthy, though, that anti-American feeling in Turkey is intense and widespread.

Later this month, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be in Washington to meet with President Bush. They'll have a great deal to talk about - including Russian interference and potential turmoil in neighboring Georgia - but it may be time for the administration to drop the infatuation and start taking a longer view of Turkey's role in the world. It can be a maddeningly difficult place. You might almost call it Byzantine.