Washington is trying to “get Turkey right” after the Iraq war. Until the election of the Islamist government in the fall of 2002 Ankara looked like the staunchest U.S. ally in the region. In the aftermath of its decision last March not to allow the 4th Infantry Division to deploy in Northern Iraq using Turkish territory, the country looks geopolitically confused. A recent two-week trip to the region confirms it.
The old saying, “Turks have no friends, and the friends of the Turks are other Turks.” Secular Turks, however, claims the AK Party leadership is pursuing an Islamist diplomatic agenda. As one official put it, “In the past, our leaders talked about Turkish interests, now they are talking about the Ummah [the global Islamic community].”
Publicly, officials say they “did nothing wrong” to the U.S. Moreover, a senior government adviser complained he was “irritated” that there is a Polish sector in Iraq, as Poland “was on the losing side” in the Cold War, while Turkey was an U.S. ally. The message to the delegation of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATAA), a U.S.-based lobbying group, which visited Turkey in June was blunt. “The Turkish authorities clearly want us to go back to the U.S. and tell people that Turkey made no mistakes and to defend Ankara’s policies before the Iraqi war,” one Turkish-American leader complained.
A member of the ATAA delegation declared that the moderate Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan preached to the delegation about the merits of promoting peace in Islam as a way to go to heaven.
Behind closed doors, however, Turks bitterly complain that the Erdogan government committed a monumental mistake and destroyed a decades-old strategic relationship with Washington.
A senior Turkish diplomat said that Ankara saw ” … no links to al Qaeda, no WMD, no threat from Saddam. … The U.S. press coverage of Turkey’s bargaining for a greater compensation package hurt Turkish pride. We were being depicted like haggling rug merchants.” And U.S. delegations were perceived in Ankara as high-handed. “They would leave us lists of things they wanted to be done.”
Turkey feared the U.S. would grant Kurds a state in Northern Iraq. The Turkish military even suspected that 62,000 troops that the U.S. intended to send to Iraq via Turkey would never leave Turkish soil. Focus on the Kurds, however, blinded Turkish officials to the importance of saving the relationship with the U.S.
Turkey’s ability to spread moderate Islam is overstated. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who spent 8 years in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, as an economist in the Islamic Development Bank, recently gave a speech in Tehran at the Organization of Islamic Conference. The speech, written by a secular Foreign Ministry official, stated that Islam is compatible with democracy and women’s equality.
However, Turkey does not have the budget, the institutions, the personnel, or the commitment to promote this model. Turkey may promote moderate Islam if it puts its own house in order. That may not be enough.
The military, for decades a steward of Turkish foreign and security policy, is split at the top. Some generals do not cherish the idea of losing its independence and being subjugated to the Common European Foreign and Security Policy — which will be defined in and by Brussels.
Some have made statements about the possibility of developing an “independent” Turkish geostrategic course, which would abandon the close relationship with the U.S., but would allow Turkey to play a bigger role in Turkic-speaking countries and develop relations with Russia, China, Iran and Israel. Possibly, this may simply a propaganda ruse to scare the U.S. into forgiving Turkey for her less-than-loyal behavior during the war.
The role of the military in national decisionmaking is being questioned. Businesspeople and intellectuals say that while in the past they hoped the Turkish military would step in during a crisis and find a solution, today’s problems may be so complex that the Army no longer has an answer. Some demand reallocation of resources, with a greater piece of the pie for civilian needs: “It is unacceptable that while education and health care get 3 percent to 4 percent of the budget, the military gets 30 percent to 35 percent.”
Armenia remains a sore point in Turkish foreign policy. It continues to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s land, causing close to 1 million people to live as refugees. While the Turkish Foreign Ministry may be interested in opening the border to stimulate exchanges and trade, the military so far has vetoed the idea. This may change. Turkey now believes that opening her borders with Armenia will increase Ankara’s leverage.
Turkey is also Iran’s neighbor. One senior official claimed Tehran is closer to producing a nuclear bomb than the U.S. thinks: Iran may have the bomb within six to 12 months. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, however, wants to pursue consultations with its Iranian counterparts and has not voiced support for the American policy on Iran beyond the usual diplomatic interventions.
To conclude, Turkey is important as an energy transit country and as a democratic and moderate Muslim state closely cooperating with the U.S. in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East. The U.S. should support the Turkish bid to get into the EU because it will become the largest country of the Union, but also because it may balance off France and Germany.
In the short run, Turkish support in resolving the Iranian nuclear weapons program will be key in defining the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. Washington should continue to engage Turkey politically and militarily while remembering its less-than-stellar performance in the moment of need.
Ariel Cohen is research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He visited Turkey in June under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Atlantic Partnership Program and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.