The U.S.-Turkey Partnership: Looking to the Future

The Turkish-American "strategic partnership" was fundamentally shaken with the crisis over Iraq.

The Turkish-American "strategic partnership" was fundamentally shaken with the crisis over Iraq. From the U.S. point of view, Turkey was no longer "indispensable"-if it was not part of the most important military operation for the Bush Administration and the war ended successfully without a northern front, when would Turkey be strategically relevant again? 

Several points need to be emphasized: 

Turkey Failed to Grasp the Gravity of 9/11 for Americans

On a recent trip to Turkey with the Transatlantic program of the Council on Foreign Relations, I realized that at the root of the problem was the inability of Turkish decision makers to fully grasp what a trauma the attacks of September 11, 2001 were for the Americans in general and, especially, for Washington policymakers.  

Turkey has struggled with terrorism for decades, and, maybe because of that, did not comprehend the fundamental policy shift Washington underwent. Even the Turkish military did not understand how the world had changed for Washington after the attacks. Not understanding the new rules of the game led Turkey to play by the old ones.   

Turkey Can Become a Liability or an Asset in the Trans-Atlantic Relations  

Ironically, in the new strategic thinking for the United States, Turkey could now become a true strategic partner, but the major caveat is whether Turkey will be able to, in time, adapt to the changing priorities and national security interests of Washington. The second caveat is whether Turkish priorities and national security interests can, in time, be formulated into a coherent policy.  

Turkey could serve as NATO's launching pad into the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO is already present in Afghanistan and will be involved in Iraqi stabilization as well. As an EU accession candidate, Turkey could also bridge the cultural and religious gap between the north and the south and the east and the west. As a reliable energy transit country, Turkey could also become an oil and gas hub for Russian, Caspian, Iranian and Iraqi hydrocarbon resources. Thus, Turkey would also help Europe with its energy security needs for decades to come.  

There are many more areas where Turkey could truly make a difference, but the main question is whether Turkey can take the historic opportunity to finally fulfill its potential of becoming a major player, or whether it will remain handicapped as a result of mismanagement and lack of vision by its leaders? Will the United States (Congress and the Bush Administration) send the right signals to help the Turks come along? What are some of the areas of cooperation that can lay the foundation for a "revised strategic partnership"?  

Strategic Areas of Cooperation: Terrorism, proliferation, radical Islam 

The first and foremost issue is the war on terror and proliferation. Turkey has a long history of fighting terrorism-mainly backed by Iran and Syria-and therefore can be tremendously helpful for Washington to better understand threats in the region. Moreover, Turkey can share its experience of trying to keep an open society while enforcing laws and taking strong measures against terrorism.  

For its part, the United States has already assisted Turkey by bringing to an end the PKK terrorist threat when it helped with the arrest of its leader Abdullah Ocalan. The next challenge for the United States is dealing with KADEK, which is a continuation of the PKK and is operating in Northern Iraq. Some in the EU that recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization still do not recognize KADEK as such, and this causes great discomfort for Turkey.  

Secondly, a related area of bilateral cooperation can be in combating radical Islam, while managing and promoting democracy. This is a major policy challenge for the U.S., and Turkey's experience and example can provide some guidance. Turkey has asked for help from the United States on this issue for many years prior to 9/11, but got little assistance. To remedy this, there could be more intelligence sharing on radical and militant groups.  

Rethinking Caucasus Security: The Greater Middle East 

Another strategic area for U.S.-Turkish cooperation is in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are now central U.S. national security interests. In the Caucasus, it is important to resolve issues that, left unchecked, could become terror breeding grounds. Both Turkey and the U.S. see Georgia as a pivotal country in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region, and there are many areas of trilateral cooperation. In Central Asia, Turkey could help strengthen the weak states by providing military training in Afghanistan or offering educational and law enforcement assistance to countries dealing with radical Islam.  

The U.S. needs to get directly involved in the Caucasus and provide a new security umbrella to the region. A common threat to the United States, Turkey and the Caucasus emanates from Iran's support of radical Islamic groups, including in Iraq. Iran has posed security challenges to Azerbaijan and could again play a negative role there ahead of the Azerbaijani presidential elections in the fall. 

To achieve this goal, Iran may want to rely on its strategic partner, Armenia. Armenia has developed close relations with Iran, due to Armenia's inability to get to world markets via Turkey. While the United States is promoting the border opening between Armenia and Turkey, this needs to be framed in a package where Azerbaijani concerns are also taken into consideration.