The United States has had a strategic love affair with Turkey since the Korean War that led both sides to bad conclusions and unreasonable expectations.Even at the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, we have a tendency to idealize certain allies.We did something similar with the Shah in Iran.We got played in both cases and in Iran it turned out badly for both us and the Shah.
Turkey parlayed an overhyped participation in the Korean War into an American hero worship of Turkish fighting qualities and “loyalty” to the United States. This love affair persisted through the Cold War despitemany difficulties such as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 warning to Turkey not to “intervene and occupy” Cyprus, Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the subsequent U.S. arms embargo and constant arguments over whether or not the massacre of Armenians was “genocide” or even if it actually took place.But the perceived common Soviet threat ensured that these difficulties never undid the relationship. Unfortunately, the love affair has survived the Cold War and persists in framing U.S. policy even in the face of increasingly ugly disagreements and confrontations between the two so-called allies.American policy makers persist in referring to Turkey as “an ally of great strategic importance,” which gives the Turkish leadership enormous leverage in managing the relationship. President Trump’s oft-articulated admiration for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian ways only exacerbates the problem.
So far, the U.S. foreign affairs establishment persists in ignoring the massive transformation of U.S. and Turkish politics that require serious reevaluation of the relationship. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not cause the problems in the bilateral relationship but rather exploited post Cold War structural change. If he loses elections or otherwise disappears from the scene, it will not change things except cosmetically.
Turkey is a grown-up with its own issues and ambitions. It has no emotional ties to the United States or to the so-called alliance. American officials on the other hand remain wedded to the idea that somehow or other we have to “save” the relationship. This causes them to avoid strong condemnation of Turkey’s slide into autocracy, the detention of U.S. citizens, its appalling human rights record and its actions undermining U.S. interests in Syria, Iraq, Cyprus, and the Aegean, as well as strengthening its ties to Moscow, e.g., by buying S400 antiaircraft missiles at the same time as they acquire 5th generation American F35 fighter planes. We have to remember that we have our own interests, and oftentimes they must take priority over some ephemeral strategic alliance with Ankara.Sometimes we can work together and others we cannot.
Turkey has a much more cleared-eye view of what the U.S. is doing wrong, not least our support for the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria.Washington sees the YPG as an indispensable ally against Islamist jihadists, Ankara sees the YPG as the vanguard of an existential Kurdish threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.This is not Erdogan’s view alone, but is shared across the entire Turkish political spectrum.Erdogan has some special complaints such as what he regards as American support for his greatest enemy, the cleric Fethullah Gulen, and the “Gulenist” coup.A broad spectrum of the American press criticizes Erdogan’s authoritarian behavior.He has painted it as a coordinated anti-Turkish campaign.
Turkey’s geography and especially Incirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey made it a prime location in the Cold War.We have allowed a false assessment of the value of the same geography to make Turkey indispensable today.We have also engaged in the fantasy that Turkey was a “model experiment in Islamic democracy” that would serve as an example to emerging Muslim countries.We forgot that most neighboring Muslim countries remember Turkey as the brutal colonial occupier even if it no longer calls itself Ottoman.
A strategic relationship requires the partners to share strategic goals. With the Soviet Union gone, our strategic goals are no longer in sync.Furthermore, in Turkey’s defense it must be said that Turks resent a dialogue in which we always describe the relationship as a subservient promoter ofU.S. interests; a common problem in U.S. public diplomacy.
As long as Turkey remains a member of NATO it remains an official “ally.” The word is now meaningless given how much we are on the opposite side of so many issues. Turkey cooperates where it wants and undermines where it doesn’t.Too many in the national security establishment, by reflex, keep trying to find the incentives to keep Turkey as an “ally.” We suspended visas after Turkish authorities arrested American Embassy local employees.They ignored us. We started issuing visas again but our employees are still in jail. We betrayed our Kurdish allies in Syria but that did not stop Turkey’s offensive against the YPG. The foreign policy establishment need to realize that for decades we had deluded ourselves into believing that we were in a deep romance; it was really a marriage of convenience that has long since run out of reasons to keep it together.