The White House meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Bush today provides an important opportunity to revitalize U.S.-Turkish relations, badly frayed by the American-led invasion of Iraq.
A strong partnership with Turkey is very much in the U.S. interest. Turkey is located the nexus of three areas of increasing strategic importance to the United States: Europe, the Caspian/Black Sea region, and the Middle East. In each areas, Turkish cooperation is vital to achievingU.S. interests.
However, U.S.-Turkish relations have badly deteriorated of late. Differences over Iraq have been accompanied by a disturbing growth of anti-Americanism in Turkey. A recent poll by the German Marshall Fund, for instance, found 82 percent of Turks polled did not support U.S. policy. If these trends continue, they could irreparably harm long-term U.S.-Turkish relations.
Recently, however, there have been signs both sides want improved relations. In May, the Turkish parliament agreed to allow the United States to use the Turkish airbase at Incirlik as a logistics hub for transporting cargo to Iraq and Afghanistan. And in April the U.S. and Turkey signed a $1.1 billion deal for upgrading of 117 F-16 fighter jets.
These positive developments can serve as building blocks to develop a revitalized Turkish-American partnership and new strategic agenda. The key items on this agenda should include:
Iraq: The United States and Turkey share a common interest in the emergence of a stable democratic Iraq. But the Turks worry that increasing Kurdish influence in Iraq — especially in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — could lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s borders and strengthen separatism among Turkey’s large Kurdish population. Ankara also wants the U.S. to clamp down on militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has recently stepped up cross-border attacks from safe havens in northern Iraq. If the U.S. continues ignoring Turkey’s pleas, Turkish anti-American sentiment is likely to grow, and Turkey may feel compelled to take unilateral action against the PKK in northern Iraq.
Broader Middle East democratization: As a secular Muslim country, Turkey can play an important role in supporting democracy in the Middle East. But the U.S. should avoid touting Turkey as a model, as some U.S. policymakers are wont to do. Many Turks, especially the military and the secular Westernized elite, are wary of being portrayed as an “Islamic model,” which they fear will strengthen the role of Islam in Turkey and weaken Turkey’s ties to the West. In a toughly worded speech at the end of April the head of the Turkish general staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, strongly denied Turkey was a model for the Islamic world. Moreover, Turkey’s image in the Arab world is tarnished by its imperial past and its strong ties to Israel.
Iran: Turkey and the United States also share a common interest in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Neither wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran. At the same time, Turkey has an important interest in maintaining good economic and political relations with Tehran, a major natural gas source for Turkey’s expanding needs. Turkey also shares a common interest with Iran in containing Kurdish separatism. Thus the United States cannot expect Turkey to support totally isolating Iran.
Central Asia and the Caucasus: A strategic dialogue on cooperation in these areas should be a top priority for both sides. Both countries share an interest in stabilizing this conflict-ridden region. In particular, they should work together to help resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. A settlement would open new possibilities for improved relations between Armenia and Turkey and also allow Armenia to reduce its dependence on Russia.
Europe: Turkey’s entry into the European Union is in the long-term interest of the United States. It will make Europe a stronger strategic partner and strengthen efforts to promote democratic reform in Turkey. At the same time, Washington needs to recognize that Turkish membership in the EU — if achieved — will result in a more “Europeanized” Turkey, one which looks increasingly to Brussels rather than to Washington.
Cyprus: Finally, both sides need to work together to promote a Cyprus settlement. Turkey has done its part. Last spring, the Turkish Cypriots, backed by Turkey, voted for the plan sponsored by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Greek Cypriots, however, rejected the plan. The election in April of Mehmet Ali Talat, new president of Turkish Cyprus, has boosted hopes for progress toward an eventual settlement.
Unlike his predecessor, Rauf Denktas, Mr. Talat supports the Annan plan and resumed bicommunal talks with Greek Cyprus.
None of these changes would end all U.S.-Turkish differences. But they would help put relations back on a much firmer footing and contribute to a critically important regional stability.
Frank Carlucci is a former defense secretary and national security adviser in the Reagan administration, and a member of the RAND Corp. board of trustees. F. Stephen Larrabee was a member of the Carter administration National Security Council staff and holds the RAND Corporate Chair in European Security.