ANKARA, Turkey — For decades, Turkey has touted itself as a reliable Muslim ally of the West -- a secular, democratic buffer between Europe and the Middle East. But as two recent landmark events heralded a reshaping of both regions, the Turks found themselves in the painful role of distant spectators.
In the Iraqi city of Ur, American, British and Polish diplomats gathered under a tent with Iraqi notables April 15 to begin the task of forming a government to replace Saddam Hussein's ousted regime. The following day, European leaders met in Athens to sign treaties that will enlarge the European Union next year from 15 members to 25.
Without a voice under the Iraqi tent or a place in Europe's expanding club, Turkey has emerged from the war next door feeling rejected and powerless, divided and uncertain about its place in the world.
In a matter of weeks, Turkey has lost a special bond with the United States by denying the Pentagon a base from which to attack Iraq; refrained, under strong U.S. pressure, from sending troops to defend its own interests in Iraq; and missed a United Nations deadline to end the ethnic partition of Cyprus, hampering Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
The setbacks have shaken the nation's pro-Western government and bolstered nationalist forces. While trying to mend fences with the West, Turkey has also made overtures to Syria and Iran, seeking common ground to limit the autonomy of ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq.
"The danger is real that Turkey will eventually alienate itself from Europe and the United States and blame both for forcing it into isolation," a European diplomat said.
The risks for the Bush administration are high.
Until now, Turkey had supported nearly every U.S. military venture since the Korean War. The only Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan and a military alliance with Israel. As the U.S. faces new levels of resentment in the Islamic world, including inside Iraq, Turkey is still a valued ally.
"There is a deep American interest in a stable, secular democracy in the Muslim world, so the United States will make every effort to maintain a responsive relationship with Turkey," said Morton I. Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. "But until the future of Iraq is established in a way the Turks are relaxed about, there's going to be major tension here."
Just four months ago, President Bush and European leaders were applauding Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he jetted among their capitals with reassurances of his country's westward course. Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party had swept to power in elections last November, needed the display of Western support to allay doubts in the Turkish military about his Islamist roots.
But the prime minister and his government have been weakened by their initial backing for a deployment of U.S. troops in Turkey to attack Iraq. With more than 90% of Turks against a war, the proposal died in parliament last month, defeated by lawmakers distrustful of Western designs.
"It is not easy to have an equal partnership with a superpower," said Cengiz Aktar, who teaches international relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. "After 50 years of siding with the United States, we are in a deplorable situation of dependency."
Turkey's 67 million people have an economic stake in this struggle. The country was crawling out of its worst recession in half a century when the war brought its economy to a halt. U.S. support is essential to sustain a $16-billion recovery package managed by the International Monetary Fund, and Turkey's drive for increased investment and trade depends heavily on its long-term prospects for EU membership.
Tuncay Ozilhan, chairman of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Assn., says the nation is blinded to these realities by isolationist impulses that threaten to turn it into "another Middle Eastern country afflicted with authoritarian rule and low income levels."
"Could it be that Turkey is being pulled away from the West deliberately in order to justify what some claim -- that we Turks can be befriended by no one?" he asked recently. "Perhaps there is a calculated effort to turn Turkey into a degraded and inward-looking state."
In a way, Turkey is wrestling with the ambivalent legacy of its nationalist military hero, Kemal Ataturk, who founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ataturk defeated an effort by Western powers to carve up Turkey but then championed a secular state aligned with Europe until his death in 1938.
For decades, the Turkish armed forces have upheld that vision. But since the end of the Cold War, an influential group of officers has begun to favor closer ties with Russia and China and to question the EU's demand that the military withdraw from politics as a condition of Turkey's membership.