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

July 9, 2003

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.  

As part of the regional security umbrella, the U.S. could also offer an agreement on territorial integrity for the region. This would ease Turkish concerns about a potential separatist Kurdish movement in Iraq. Territorial integrity would also be important in addressing some of the most contentious disputes, such as Georgia's Abkhazia, Russia's Chechnya and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh. Eventually, when there is regime change in Iran, it would also keep the approximately 30 million Azerbaijanis inside Iran's territory.  

The Turkish Example 

At the same time, Turkey could serve as a possible "example" to the greater Middle East, which includes Iran, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, at a recent meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Countries (OIC) in Tehran, stated that the current Turkish government wants to prove that "a Muslim society can be democratic, open, transparent, pluralistic and modern, while preserving its identity." He urged that: 

"countries in the Islamic world must act with a refreshed  vision in which good governance, transparency and accountability will reign, the fundamental rights and freedoms as well as gender equality are upheld, and there would be no place for blunting rhetoric and slogans….we should first put our house in order. Rationalism should be our driving force, as we draw our strength from our spiritual values. Creating a synergy from these values inherent in our being will be our test in, as well as our contribution to, our modern age…I challenge the view that modernity and democracy based on the rule of law, political and economic participation, and gender equality cannot exist in the Muslim world. The Turkish experience proves otherwise." 

Gul also said the Turkish government would explore with the United States and Europe ideas on:  

  • Regional good neighborliness charter or a code of conduct
  • Regional security and cooperation process
  • Regional trade liberalization
  • Enhanced economic and cultural interrelationship
  • Regional anti-terror pact

These approaches provide many opportunities for cooperation. While the United States works with Turkey on promoting the "Turkish example" for the greater Middle East, however, it needs to better understand what the "Turkish model" is-it is truly unique and the U.S. ought not try to shape it to become a bit more religious or a bit less secular so that it can be more applicable for the Arab Middle East. The U.S. does not have a good track record in dealing with political Islam and ought to stay out of this area in Turkey as well. 

American policy on moderate Islam leading to anti-Americanism 

In fact, with more and more people in Turkey believing that the United States wants a more religious Turkish democracy, there is growing anti-Americanism among the secular establishments, as well as among Muslims who want to keep Islam out of politics. Alternatively, the conspiracy theorists, worrying that the U.S. and Europe again want to destabilize Turkey, are increasingly becoming nationalistic and anti-American.  

This phenomenon also explains the immense popularity of Cem Uzan, the leader of the newly formed Youth Party. Uzan is leading the polls on anti-American, anti-IMF and pro-Turkish slogans. He was taken to RICO court in New York by Motorola and Nokia for a $3 billion fraud case, and instead of giving into U.S. pressure (political, legal and commercial), he fought back. Many Turks were proud of their "Robin Hood" who took the big corporate money. As a charismatic and handsome young leader, he seems to be imitating Turkey's founder Ataturk in giving Turks back their pride. With a beautiful wife and holdings in media, telecom and major businesses, he could become the next Berlusconi.