The Bipolarity of U.S.-Turkish Relations

The Bipolarity of U.S.-Turkish Relations

Erdogan has been called everything from Islamist terrorist to ally. Washington must figure out where it stands on Ankara.

In early 2001, as Bush-administration officials were formulating a new global strategy, an Israeli diplomat met in Washington with a top Pentagon official who explained that Washington’s policy in the Middle East would “not be very complicated.” On one side would be the “good guys,” including Israel, Turkey and India. On the other side were the “baddies,” led by Iraq, Iran and Syria. The Israeli diplomat was asked to travel to Ankara to try selling the new “strategy" to officials there.

“The Turks were quite astonished to learn that the Americans were expecting them to join a strategic alliance with India,” the Israeli diplomat recalled. “Don’t the Americans know that we’ve always had close diplomatic and military ties with India’s traditional rival, Pakistan?” said one Turkish official, who rejected the administration’s Manichean worldview in which the Turks were part of an U.S.-led coalition confronting what would later be known as the Axis of Evil.

That initial U.S. approach toward Turkey reflected the dualistic doctrine of the Cold War, in which the “good guys,” led by Washington, confronted the Evil Empire. From that perspective, the Turks together with the Israelis and the Indians were expected to play on “our team” in the Middle East.

The alliance between Ankara and New Delhi failed to materialize. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Turkey, then led then by a moderate Islamist political movement, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was designated as a model of a liberal and democratic Muslim country that—unlike the ayatollahs in Tehran and the perpetrators of 9/11—shared the values and interests of the United States.

Then came the American decision to oust Saddam Hussein and the ensuing refusal by Ankara to permit the United States to use its territory to deploy troops into Iraq—followed later by the cooling off in the relationship between Turkey and Israel—and the same Americans who not long ago were celebrating Turkey’s pro-Western foreign-policy orientation were now warning that Turkey, headed by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, was joining forces with Iran and Syria. They feared an anti-American and anti-Israeli Axis of Evil seeking to destroy the Jewish state as part of a long-term strategy of reestablishing the Ottoman Empire. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry even suggested that Turkey was ruled by “Islamic terrorists.”

But more recently, following Turkey’s decision to join NATO's missile-defense project and its blasting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s repressive policies, the bipolar disorder that has afflicted U.S. attitudes towards Ankara seems to be swinging from the irritable mood of the last few years back into euphoria. Ankara is once again on “our team,” and Prime Minister Erdogan has been transformed from a Middle Eastern Hugo Chavez into one of the “good guys.”

Indeed, against the backdrop of the so-called Arab Spring, American pundits are once again hailing the Turkish model that fuses commitment to Islamic values and democratic and liberal principles. And at a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East has been eroding, Ankara is now seen by the Obama administration as a regional power helping Washington maintain its interests vis-à-vis radical players like Iran.

Ankara has done “an about-face” and decided “to re-embrace the West,” Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently. Turkey under Erdogan chose to pivot away from the West in the 2000s: it “entered a period of increasingly cold relations with the United States and turned its interest to the Middle East in hopes of becoming a regional power," he argued. Now Turkey's foreign policy "has come full circle.”

Bridge to the West

But the facts are different than some commentators would present them. At no stage in the evolution of its foreign policy in recent years has Turkey demonstrated an interest to pivot away from the West. Under Erdogan, Turkey remained a committed member of NATO and has participated in its operations in Afghanistan.

And Turkey has continued to apply for full membership in the European Union (EU); the reason it has not joined that grouping has to do with German and French opposition and not with the alleged anti-Western inclinations of the AKP and Erdogan.

If anything, one of the main factors driving the more recent Turkish efforts to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors was a recognition that Turkey would probably not be able to join the EU anytime soon and needed, therefore, to search for new export and investment markets. In any case, much of the talk about Turkish neo-Ottoman aspirations was overblown. Ankara hopes to become an economic bridge between the Middle East and the West—not form an anti-Western bloc of the kind Chavez is trying to build in Latin America.

At the same time, Turkey sees in a nuclear Iran a threat to its national security, which explains its decision to join NATO's missile-defense project last year. But Ankara also wants to prevent a full-blown war next to its borders that could ignite regional instability—the reason for its opposition to the American invasion of Iraq—which explains its efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

Similarly, recent tensions with Israel reflect changes in Turkish strategic calculations and are not demonstrations of anti-Western sentiments. The military cooperation between Ankara and Jerusalem has never amounted to a regional alliance and was driven mostly by Cold War considerations and by the ups and downs in Turkey’s relationships with Arab countries. It is not inconceivable that ties with Israel will change once again if and when the interests of the two countries are reassessed.

A Geopolitical Climate Change

Washington’s shifting relations with Ankara point to a larger strategic lesson: it is time for U.S. officials to stop applying a manic-depressive approach towards the relationship with Turkey. The evolving international system is looking less like that of the Cold War—when nation-states were forced to join either of the two major ideological blocs—and resembling more the one that prevailed in the nineteenth century, when the fluidity that characterized international balance of power allowed nation-states more flexibility in determining their strategic choices.

In that context of strategic flexibility, President Obama, recognizing the complex calculations driving current Turkish foreign policy, has refrained from forcing Ankara to make the choice of whether it was "with us" or "against us" on every policy issue while establishing close working relationship with Erdogan. This approach created an environment conducive for growing cooperation over Iran, Afghanistan and the response to the crises in Libya and Syria.

Turkey's resistance to playing a more active role in trying to force Assad from power may have disappointed Washington (although that may change if the Turks decide to use military power in response to alleged Syrian support for Kurdish secessionist groups). At the same time, Turkey has been disappointed over the Obama administration's decision not to give it a waiver from sanctions that Washington intends to impose on countries buying oil from Iran.

Among other countries who continue to buy oil from Iran are India—a member of the imaginary alliance with Turkey and Israel concocted by the Bush administration—and Greece, which Israelis regard as a new strategic ally. At the same, Turkey could be forced into a military confrontation with Syria, Israel’s nemesis.

These shifting alliances suggest that there has been a change in the geopolitical climate. And it is not conducive to the health of the manic-depressive American official—or the hysterical pundit.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).