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Turning around Turkish opinion

Give someone the cold shoulder long enough, and the message sinks in. That appears to be happening with NATO member Turkey. Sensing disregard from the West, the Turks themselves are losing interest. That's a trend that must be reversed.

A recoiling Turkey might not look to be the case based on recent government action. Last week, the parliament in Ankara approved sending up to 1,000 troops to Lebanon to take part in the United Nations peacekeeping force there. That's a substantial contribution and one that was warmly welcomed by European countries as well as the US.

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This show of official solidarity, however, lacks public support in Turkey, where opinion is also moving swiftly away from familiar ties with the West, according to a recent survey by the US German Marshall Fund, a policy institute. Turkey has belonged to NATO for more than 40 years, and last year, 52 percent of Turks found NATO was still essential to their security. This year, 44 percent do. In 2004, 73 percent of Turks thought membership in the European Union would be good thing. Now with Turkey negotiating EU membership, only 54 percent do.

Meanwhile, Turks are warming significantly to their eastern neighbor, Iran. This despite the fact that Iran is a Shiite Islamist theocracy, while Turkey's Muslims are mostly Sunni, and its secular government, a democracy.

"While it is still too early to talk about a major shift in Turkey, all the ingredients for a realignment are there," warned Suat Kiniklioglu in an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune last week. Mr. Kiniklioglu is director of the Ankara office of the US German Marshall Fund. He also pointed out that Turkey's relations with its neighbor Russia have grown "exponentially."

Talking Turkey means straight talk about how important this ally is to the West. Strategically, it anchors NATO on its southern flank in a very volatile region. Culturally and politically it serves as a bridge to the Islamic world, and as proof that democracy and Islam can coexist. And while Turkey is still a poor country, its economy is growing at a clip.

The key to turning around Turkish public opinion is addressing what has turned it off.

As far as NATO is concerned, that would have to be the Iraq war, and the cool response from the Pentagon after the Turkish parliament refused to let US troops use Turkey as a staging ground to invade Iraq. The US is unlikely to leave Iraq soon, but it is addressing more specifically the root cause of Ankara's concern: increased Kurdish terrorism in Turkey that's linked to Kurds in Iraq. The US recently appointed a retired general to address this cross-border issue. Hopefully, the US will treat this as more than mere placation.

As for the EU, the better course may be to ease up a bit. Not on the need for continued Turkish reform, but on the sensitive topic of Greek Cyprus, a new EU member that wants entry to ports in Turkey, its nemesis. Putting this on the back burner might help in light of coming Turkish elections. And, it might remove a flash point that would otherwise further inflame anti-Turkish sentiment among some EU members.

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The EU has always been hesitant about Turkey in the flock. The problem is, now Turkey's not so sure.


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