Falling Out

America’s deteriorating relationship with Turkey is likely to get even worse.

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 mounted steadily.

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 relations.