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Mares: Turkey, The Country

11/16/11 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(Host) Especially this time of year, when we hear the word "Turkey," most of us think about hunting, or Thanksgiving dinner. But for commentator Bill Mares, the word has recently taken on new meaning.

(Mares) Our older son works for a Chinese-American wire company that has sent him to Turkey six times in the last year. He considers Turkey the perfect bridge to serve both Europe and the Middle East. It's not part of the EU yet, but its favorable taxes and lower manufacturing costs make it very competitive. And the population of Turkey is young and English-speaking, with a strong work ethic and a business-minded attitude.

For all the talk of the Arab spring, and the perennial palpitations about Iran, I think that Turkey is today the most interesting country in the Middle East. And now that one of my sons has been working there, I'm even more convinced.

Turkey is a nation of 73 million people, and it has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. Modern Turkey was established as a rigorously secular state, but it's just passed successfully through the third election of a moderately Islamist party, led by Recip Tayyip-Erdogan, whose political success comes from a clever blend of religious devotion, Turkish nationalism and a well-oiled party machine.

In 2003, Turkey showed its foreign policy independence when, although a member of NATO, it refused to allow Americans to attack Iraq from Turkish bases. Today, the Turks have openly sympathized with rebels against the Assad regime in Syria.

When Turkey grew tired of waiting for approval to join the European Union, it turned back to the Middle East and to Central Asia for more of its business.

Recent Arab opinion polls show a striking increase in respect for Turkey and a kindred decline of favor toward Iran. Part of its appeal is that it's a predominantly Muslim culture with conservative values, but also a moderately successful democracy with a growing economy.

Some Sunni Arabs also see Turkey as a bulwark against the influence of Shia Iran.

Turkey certainly has problems. Some fear that Erdogan is becoming too authoritarian. Press freedoms are under attack. The military leadership, which has long been the guardian of a secular state, has resigned in protest. The central government still cannot figure out how to integrate 10 million Kurds into full citizenship and identity, especially when one Kurd faction is still in active revolt.

Erdogan's most important asset is the economic boom over which he has presided. Turkish businesses are active in more than 80 countries across the Middle East , Central Asia and Africa . In just one decade, they have attracted more than 90 billion dollars in direct foreign investment.

Challenges abound, such as finding a middle ground between full secularism and fundamentalism, enabling the Kurds to achieve full citizenship, and avoiding another military coup. Turkey's vibrant economy could overheat. How much influence Turkey be able to exert on the murderous Syrian regime, or the ayatollahs of Iran is anyone's guess. I expect that the next ten years will be every bit as intriguing for Turkey as the last ten.

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