NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In a recent presidential Republican debate, Turkey - under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - was described as a place where the murder rate against women has increased 1,400 percent, where press freedom has declined to the level of Russia, and where Turkey's prime minister has embraced Hamas and threatened military force against both Israel and Cyprus.
Mostly true, notes Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. But he also goes to point out that Turkey's government just installed an advanced radar to track missiles from Iran, joined the NATO intervention in Libya, hosts the Syrian opposition, and amended its constitution to expand rights for women, ethnic minorities and unions - all at a complicated and sometimes infuriating place, Diehl writes. But if we are lucky, Turkey may become a model for the Islamic governments in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
If you have questions about Turkey's role in the region and its value as a model, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor at The Post and writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and joins us from a studio at the newspaper. Nice to have you back.
JACKSON DIEHL: Oh, it's my pleasure.
CONAN: And you acknowledge that Turkey as hardly the perfect ally.
DIEHL: No, it's not. It's been a very mixed bag. There have been ups and downs. And the Obama administration has really struggled with the Erdogan government. But on the whole, they feel like they're reaching a positive place, and some of the evidence shows that they are.
CONAN: And some of the evidence, yet that recitation at the beginning, that's also true.
DIEHL: That's true. I wouldn't vouch for the murder rate about women, but it is true that they have launched a lot of crackdowns domestically against journalists, against opponents in the military, against other secular forces. And they've had a very rocky relationship with Israel. I don't think the threat to use force against Israel should be taken seriously, but a relationship that once was very close has deteriorated very much.
CONAN: A relationship once very close with Syria has also deteriorated.
DIEHL: And I think that speaks well of Erdogan. He cultivated Bashar al-Assad, sent delegations there, declared that Syria was going to be a close ally of Turkey. When the revolution in Syria started, he first supported Assad. He sent people there to talk to Assad about reforming. When Assad refused reform, he switched sides. He's completely switched sides now. In fact, he's not only hosting the Syrian opposition, but he's hosting some of what's called the Free Syrian Army, the opposition army that's starting to coalesce.
And I've heard that Turkey is supplying that army with weapons. So Erdogan has completely come around to the other side on that issue, and it shows that in the Arab Spring as a whole, he is backing the forces of liberal change.
CONAN: Well, interesting. If a NATO ally is backing a irredentist force of a neighboring country, well, that raises all kinds of questions, doesn't it?
DIEHL: Yeah. That's not irredentist so much as it's an opposition force. It's a rebel force. It's an insurgent force fighting against a dictatorship. And it's really not different from backing the Libyan rebels, which NATO supported, again, with Turkey's participation. I think the difference here is that Turkey's the neighbor, and they have the capacity to do something that the rest of the NATO allies, probably in a perfect world, would like to do, but don't feel that they can.
CONAN: And did in Libya with the authorization of a Security Council resolution, which does not exist at the moment. But anyway, moving on from other aspects of that, if we're lucky, you say, places like Egypt and Iraq will use Turkey as a model.
DIEHL: Yeah. You hope that that's what will happen. I mean, there's, you know, there's a different sort of Islamic movement coming out in the Middle East. We're used to seeing Islamic movements in power in places like Iran that are fundamentalists, very hostile to the West, or else movements that are associated somehow with terrorism, like Hezbollah and Hamas. Now we're seeing a kind of Islamic movement that has sworn off violence, that has a much more - is much willing to cooperate with the West and is operating in this kind of uncertain middle ground and are sort of up for play.
They could cooperate with us. They could be hostile to us. And it's going to be a matter of trying to work with them and see what we can get out of them, instead of knowing from the start that they're going to be hostile.
CONAN: One of the great things that we worry about in both Iraq and in Egypt is a new government emergence there with a parliamentary majority clearly dominated by Islamists is minority rights. And Turkey's record on that is not outstanding.
DIEHL: No, although again it's been mixed. And the Erdogan government has been, certainly, initially, more supportive of Kurdish rights and Turkey than was the previous military governments. But recently, they've been tougher on - certainly on the armed wing of the Kurds and has carried out attacks on Iraq against that wings, and they've put some Kurdish legislators in jail. So they - again, it's a very mixed bag on the whole, probably somewhat better than the previous military governments.
CONAN: And it's interesting, most of the places we are talking about in terms of the Arab Spring were once dominated by Turkey during the Ottoman Empire.
DIEHL: And I think people in the region are very aware of that, and Turkey itself is very aware of that. They have to be careful about that. They're a little bit like we are in Latin America. People are very wary of them. They don't want to be a Turkish colony. They don't want to be dominated by Istanbul. And so there's a - Turkey has to be somewhat subtle and careful about not appearing to dictate to these countries.
CONAN: Not appearing to dictate. At the same time, it should be persuasive that Turkey is more and more prosperous - not prosperous on the European level, not yet, but its middle class is advancing.
DIEHL: That's exactly right, and I think actually that's one of the most important things that Turkey has to offer, because in a lot of these countries, they are struggling with what their economic policy is going to be after this revolution. That's particularly true of Egypt, which doesn't know whether it wants to be a state-dominated economy, whether it wants to be - go back, return to a kind of populism where - what direction they want to go. And here they have the model of Turkey, which was a basket case 10 years ago in 2001, which had to turn to the IMF in desperation, and now is one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
Their GNP has tripled in the last 10 years. So they have a very important model to offer Egypt, in particular, but also other countries in the region that are going to have to find a way to grow economically in order for these revolutions to succeed in the long run.
CONAN: Let's - we're talking with Jackson Diehl, our deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. He contributes to the PostPartisan blog, as well. And let's get a caller on the line. Kirsten is with us, Kirsten from Bonita Springs in Florida.
KIRSTEN: Hi. I lived over in Turkey for a few months of the year for a few years ago, and I married into a well-to-do Turkish family. And I wanted to have your speaker address the women's rights issues. Having spent so much time over there, I never felt that I was - that I had to be afraid of acting or dressing any way different than I did in the United States. And I know a lot of people don't understand Turkish culture, but I didn't feel like would - was being held down or threatened in any way by being Western.
DIEHL: Well, yeah. Turkey's very different from other countries in the region in that respect. Now, some people in Turkey do worry about what the Erdogan government's intentions are about women. One of the most - the signal initiatives of this government was to try and permit women to wear headscarves in universities, which may sound like a trivial issue, but in Turkey, it was a matter of enormous symbolism because they had been banned for many years. And when they launched this initiative, it almost prompted the military to try and carry out a coup, and eventually Erdogan backed off.
And, in fact, he's struck a very balanced approach so far. They changed the Turkish constitution actually to expand some rights for women, making it easier to get a divorce, for example. So they've - they're taking very much a middle road.
KIRSTEN: And I think the whole aspect of wearing the hijab was more - in trying to ban that, I think they were just trying to empower the women who maybe lived in the lower classes or the more eastern parts of the country who were more tied to those types of habits.
CONAN: Well. Yeah, we do we have to understand the history of this particular version of Turkey arising from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire under the great general and then leader of the country Ataturk, who was militantly anti-Islam.
DIEHL: That's right, exactly. He made secularism sort of the religion of Turkey, and he installed the military as its ultimate defender. So it's been long road for this Justice and Development party of Turkey just to introduce Islamic ideas back into the public discourse again. Erdogan was once in prison simply for reading a poem that had an Islamic tenor to it.
CONAN: Kirsten, thanks very much for the call.
KIRSTEN: Thank you.
CONAN: And as we look at this history, that is something that is not the case elsewhere in the Middle East. I mean, you could make the argument that that was the case to some degree in a place like Syria or Iraq, but no longer.
DIEHL: Yes, that's right, and then this history of secularism. And, of course, the military governments in those places did consider themselves secular, but they had the effect of strengthening Islamic movements by trying to repress them. So one reason that the Muslim Brotherhood is as strong as it is in Egypt and as strong as it is in Syria is that the governments there tried so hard to repress them.
CONAN: There is also the question of, as you mentioned, the change in policy towards Israel. And yes, there was the incident with the convoy that was trying to break the blockade of Gaza and the Israeli commandos who attacked and killed some people on a Turkish vessel. This convoy was all Turkey's idea, I think it's fair to say. Nevertheless, Turkey now insists that unless Israel apologizes and lifts the blockade, there can be no improvement in relations.
DIEHL: Yes, that's true. They - and they went through extensive negotiations last year, trying to reach some kind of accord. And I think the one thing you can say is the Turkish government was proved fairly flexible in those negotiations, and they reached a point where they had a deal that the majority of the Israeli Cabinet, I think, was in favor of accepting. At the last minute, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided not to accept it. But they did get pretty close to striking a deal. And I think it's also worth noting, there's been no other convoy sent from Turkey to Gaza since then. So I think in the long run, the Turks realized they do not really want to rupture with Israel, or probably I think there is some chance they will get - they will improve that relationship in the next couple of years.
CONAN: Yet there are elements at least that believe Turkey cannot improve its role in the rest of the Middle East and improve relations with Israel at the same time.
DIEHL: Yeah, it's a balancing act. They have to strike. And, of course, you know, that's why some part of it depends on what happens in the peace process. If there's movement in the peace process, then it's easier for someone like Erdogan to be friendly towards Israel.
CONAN: There is also a question that you raised in the article, in the op-ed piece in The Washington Post, and that is the degree to which the - Erdogan, the prime minister, has been a confidant of President Obama.
DIEHL: Yeah, it's one of the most remarkable things. You know, I wrote a piece a couple of years ago pointing out that Obama had relatively few foreign friends, that he didn't tend to develop strong personal relationships with other leaders. And since then, one of the changes in that has been his relationship with this man, Erdogan.
And it's interesting, because Erdogan sort of thwarted him in a very important moment in June of 2010 when the United States was pushing very hard for sanctions against Iran. Erdogan first tried to stop the whole process from going forward by striking a separate deal with Iran. Then he had Turkey vote against it in the U.N. Security Council. Obama was terribly offended. They met soon afterwards at a Group of 20 meeting, and Obama took Erdogan aside and said, look, you know, I'm really unhappy with you. That was an important initiative that you tried to stop. And they ended having a very long conversation, went on for several hours, and somehow emerged with an understanding.
And since then, I'm told that Obama has called Erdogan on the phone last year more times than any other foreign leader except David Cameron, and they seem to have reached the kind of meeting of the minds. And they - and you can see it happening in areas like Syria and Libya, for example, where Turkey has been pretty much on the same page as the United States.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl, thanks very much for your time today.
DIEHL: Oh, it's my pleasure.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl joined us from a studio at The Washington Post. You can find a link to his piece "Turkey's Government is the New Normal in the Middle East" at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.