ANKARA, Turkey, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Barack Obama wasn't the Turkish leadership's top choice for next U.S. president; John McCain was seen here as superior in the foreign affairs arena and the more pro-Turkish of the two candidates.
But President-elect Obama is considered the best person to repair the world's image of the United States, they say, an important issue for politicians here. Only 12 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States, according to a June Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul's advice to Obama is to get "objective" briefings on Turkey, a dig at the lobbying efforts aimed at U.S. recognition of the alleged Turkish genocide of Armenians.
"I would also tell him that Turkey and the United States and the work we do is very important for the region, for stability in the region but also stability in the world," he said. "I would say that we've done good things together so far, and I would say, let's continue to work together."
Turkey's president was asked recently by a colleague about his foreign policy priority list. Mid-answer, he was interrupted: "Are you the United States?"
"If you should list the issues, foreign policy issues, that Turkey and the United States follow and the aims that we pursue," said Gul, recounting the conversation, "if you list that with Turkey on one side and the United States on the other side, you'd be amazed at how much overlap, how much parallel there is, how these issues are almost entirely identical."
The geopolitical agenda of the next U.S. president is shared by Turkey, insist government and business leaders here -- from Iraq to Middle East peace to energy security.
"I don't believe there are similar nations where such parallels could be drawn," Gul told a handful of American reporters, bloggers and think-tankers in a conference room in his office.
With a foot in Europe, a foot in Asia, and the Muslim connection with the Middle East, Turkey says its strategic position is like no other.
"The Caucasus, Central Asia, NATO, Russia, Iraq, Iran, it's a player in all these issues. It's not simply anymore a defender of the southern flank against Russia," said Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. "As the world has changed and the politics and problems have changed, Turkey's positions, its strength, its dynamism, its size, its military forces, have become a regional player."
FOREIGN POLICY FRIENDS
Ankara has been mediating secret talks between Syria and Israel, and is engaged in Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue. Last year the Israeli and Palestinian presidents were his guests, riding in the limousine together and addressing the Turkish Parliament. A Turkish-led Israeli-Palestinian industrial zone in the West Bank is under way as well.
"We worked very hard to keep peace in this region," Gul said. "And we do take concrete steps to find resolution to the conflicts here."
Turkish officials are wary of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that would embolden internal strife or allow too much Iranian or Saudi influence or greater Kurdish autonomy. But despite the 2003 domestic political hiccup preventing U.S. forces from using Turkish bases, Ankara backs U.S. policy in Iraq. As one senior Foreign Ministry official put it: "The failure of the U.S. in Iraq is the failure of Turkey too."
Turkey also wants to enhance its position as an energy hub, creating interdependence between European consumers and Middle Eastern and Asian energy producers -- largely without Russia, a key U.S. strategy for isolating the Eurasian power while increasing the supply of oil and gas.
"A positive and westward-leaning, democratic Turkey is built into all our calculations," said Abramowitz, now senior fellow at The Century Foundation. "If Turkey were to depart from that -- and I don't think it will -- and become more oriented toward the Islamic world or Russia, that would involve a major change in perception on how we have to deal with that world. (Turkey's) alliance with the West has been a critical part of our thinking for years."
Turkey's geopolitical power is less reliant on U.S. "parallels" as it becomes more independent, though.
Despite criticism from the United States, Ankara ensures economic ties with countries like Russia and Iran -- major trade destinations and routes -- while engaged in their diplomatic rows and has always maintained direct contact with Syria.
"Just because Turkey doesn't take a hard-line position doesn't mean we are going to go dancing with the devil," said Cem Duna, a former top official in the Foreign Ministry and an adviser to the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association.
The Russia-Georgia fighting in August prompted international condemnation, adding to criticism that Russia is attempting to corner the world's oil and gas supply chain. Turkey refrained from blaming Moscow publicly.
Iran's natural gas is crucial for Turkey's domestic energy demands, but its nuclear program is freezing economic progress. Turkey is increasing trade talks with Iran but is not on the sidelines in the nuclear dispute, Gul said. He says relations with Iran -- including the ability to have "a very frank, very sincere, very open discussion" with visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently -- are crucial to solving the problem.
Turkey "ruffles feathers" sometimes, a result of its new role in the world, said Meliha Altunisik, chairwoman of Middle East Technical University's department of international relations. But she says this independence only strengthens its pull with countries that its ally, the United States, does not have.
THE ECONOMIC TIES THAT BIND
One "parallel" Turkey is keen on avoiding is the economic meltdown seen as having started in the United States and exported to the world.
"Intervention by the United States has been delayed," said Rifat Hisarciklioglu, president of the powerful Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, adding U.S. policymakers have been distracted by elections.
"No one can see the darkness of this crisis," Hisarciklioglu said. "Right now we have a panic environment."
Turkey has had its share of economic disasters, most recently in 2001 when banks lost tens of billions of dollars. Officials say the resulting tightened regulation and fiscal guidelines will protect the financial sector, but the real economy is at risk.
Turkey was banking on steady economic growth, but unemployment will likely rise upon the expected surge of youth entering the workforce, funding for major projects will dry up and demand from export markets such as Europe will drop.
"Whatever happens in the whole world happens here," said Cuneyd Zapsu, an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey's political and business leaders tout this marriage of U.S.-Turkish interests as proof the next president must enhance relations with Ankara, regardless of who is elected. "It's not only the president of the United States, it's like electing the president of the world," said Hisarciklioglu, joking, "Everyone in the world should be able to vote."