TURKEY, US: FALLING OUT
April 26 2010
For more than six decades, U.S. officials have regarded Turkey as
an important, loyal U.S. ally. Throughout the Cold War, Washington
viewed Turkey as NATO’s indispensable "southeast anchor." When the
Cold War ended, many members of the American foreign-policy community
insisted that Turkey was an even more important U.S. security partner
than before. Paul Wolfowitz, who would become deputy secretary of
defense under President George W. Bush, was one of several prominent
experts who argued that there were a handful of "keystone powers"
in the international system, and that Turkey was high on that list.
Pro-Turkish analysts argued that in a post-Cold War environment, Turkey
not only remained NATO’s southeast anchor, it was also a crucial bridge
between the Middle East and Europe and a valuable conduit for Western,
secular influence in much of the Muslim world, especially the Central
Asian republics that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union.
But over the past seven or eight years, Turkey’s international behavior
has begun to cause noticeable uneasiness among U.S. officials and
members of the foreign policy community. A chill has developed in
U.S.-Turkish relations, and it is likely to get worse.
The first major blow to the relationship occurred in early 2003 when
U.S. leaders sought permission from Turkey to open a northern front
from Turkish territory for the impending conflict with Iraq. Turkish
leaders demanded a huge sum (reportedly in excess of $30 billion)
for permitting such an operation. Even if Washington had agreed
to such thinly veiled extortion, though, it is not at all clear
that Ankara would have gone ahead with the agreement. It was the
Bush administration’s bad luck that an Islamist government, led by
the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had taken power following
the electoral rout of the traditional Kemalist secular parties in
November 2002. That government was not inclined to back another
U.S. war against a Muslim country.
Washington could not count on support from the secular Turkish
military for that venture either–a point that embittered U.S. military
leaders, who complained about the ingratitude of America’s ally. But
Turkish military commanders were at least as worried as the civilian
politicians about the probable impact of the strategy to depose Saddam
Hussein. In their view, such a step would exacerbate the problems
with the Kurdish region of Iraq that the Persian Gulf War and the
imposition of the northern no-fly zone had already caused since the
early 1990s. Ousting Saddam, they believed, would fatally weaken
the government in Baghdad and allow Kurdish secessionist forces in
northern Iraq to run amok.
That was not a minor issue for Turkey. About 20 percent of the Kurdish
population in the Middle East reside in Iraq, but fully 50 percent
live in southeastern Turkey, where a low-level insurgency by the
Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) remained stubbornly persistent.
Any emergence of a Kurdish political entity in northern Iraq was seen
as a potential threat to the unity of the Turkish state.
The gap between U.S. and Turkish views regarding Iraq has grown to
a chasm in the years since the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Turkish
leaders have seen Iran’s influence in Iraq on the rise, epitomized by
Tehran’s cozy ties with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki, a development that almost no one in Turkey welcomed.
Even worse, from Ankara’s standpoint, is the now ostentatious de facto
independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. To Turkish leaders, both military
and civilian, that undesirable development was the inevitable product
of a myopic U.S. policy, and they are seething over it.
To make matters worse, the PKK insurgency, which had subsided in
the years since the capture of the organization’s leader, Abdullah
Ocalan, in 1999, flared again as Iraqi Kurdistan consolidated its de
facto independence. PKK fighters used Kurdish territory in Iraq as
a sanctuary from which to launch attacks inside Turkey. Ankara’s
complaints to Washington about that situation and the Kurdish
regional government’s failure to take action against PKK fighters
Finally, the Turkish government, under pressure from the military,
warned Washington in late 2007 that it would launch an offensive into
northern Iraq to clean out PKK sanctuaries. U.S. officials sought to
mediate between Ankara and the Kurdish regional government, facing
the prospect that its long-time NATO ally and the most pro-American
faction in Iraq might well go to war against each other. Washington
ultimately managed to prevail on the Turkish military to scale-down
the scope of its intervention and pressured the Kurdish regime to
avoid direct confrontation with invading Turkish forces. But neither
side was happy with the arrangement, and Turkey continues to stir
the pot by threatening to launch new offensives.
At a minimum, Ankara’s behavior has complicated Washington’s already
troubled mission in Iraq, and U.S. officials are understandably
unhappy. The Turkish government’s repeated warnings that it will not
tolerate Iraq’s oil-rich city of Kirkuk to come under the jurisdiction
of the Kurdish regional government is also a growing source of tension.
>>From Washington’s standpoint, Turkey has not been acting like much
of an ally with respect to Iraq policy. From Ankara’s standpoint, U.S.
policy in Iraq is clumsy, obtuse and undermines important Turkish
interests. That dispute has clearly been a catalyst, perhaps the
principal catalyst, for the noticeable deterioration in U.S.-Turkish
But the foreign-policy sources of the growing estrangement lie deeper.
Ankara is quite deliberately deemphasizing ties with its traditional
NATO allies, including the United States, and is placing greater
emphasis on strengthening links within the Muslim world, especially
the Arab nations. The government of Prime Minister Erdogan not only
has distanced itself from Washington’s wildly unpopular policy in Iraq,
but key differences have emerged about how to deal with Iran.
Ankara continues to oppose the U.S.-led strategy of imposing
multilateral economic sanctions on Tehran because of that government’s
apparent quest to build nuclear weapons.
That stance puts Turkey in the same camp as China and Russia on
the Iran issue, much to Washington’s chagrin. But it is consistent
with Ankara’s overall rapprochement with Moscow. Turkey is not
only cooperating closely with Russia on energy issues, but it has
tilted toward its onetime adversary on other matters. Most notably,
the Turkish government did not back the angry U.S. reaction toward
Russia during that country’s 2008 war against Georgia. Nor has Turkey
been supportive of Washington’s goal to add Georgia and Ukraine to
the roster of NATO members–a move that Moscow regards as hostile to
If Washington is unhappy about the increasingly friendly ties between
Turkey and Russia, it is even more distressed about the rapidly
escalating animosity between Turkey and Israel. Ankara’s blunt
criticism of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza last year is the
most visible indicator of deteriorating Israeli-Turkish relations,
but it is hardly the only one. Those ties reached their nadir earlier
this year when the Israeli deputy foreign minister humiliated the
Turkish ambassador–by, among other actions, making him sit on a
couch blatantly lower than his host’s, thereby making him look like
a school child awaiting a scolding from the principal. The frosty
relations between Turkey and Israel have had a further negative
impact on U.S.-Turkish ties. Washington is deeply unhappy that Ankara
has apparently become unfriendly toward America’s favorite ally in
The latest blow to the U.S.-Turkish relationship came last month when
the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve a resolution
condemning the Armenian genocide that occurred during the final years
of the Ottoman Empire. Previous resolutions on that topic had always
died in committee. The reaction to the latest vote in Turkey was
one of fury, and Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington for
Although congressional leaders and even Turkey’s long-standing friends
in the U.S. military are beginning to have second thoughts about the
reliability of the political and security partnership with Ankara,
the Obama administration has not yet given up on its goal to establish
closer ties with Turkey. That will not be an easy task, though. The
foreign-policy differences between Washington and Ankara are now both
numerous and profound. Going forward, the United States is likely to
have a rocky relationship, at best, with that keystone power.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of more than 400 articles
and eight books on international affairs. His latest book is Smart
Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America (2008).