As Washington revisits its Middle East policy relating to Egypt and Syria, it should also examine the past five years of relations with another critical country, Turkey. The hope at the outset of the Obama administration that Turkey could play a positive, moderating role in the Middle East has given way to a different reality—of a nation that increasingly meddles in its neighbors’ internal affairs and clashes with U.S. policy. Turkey’s potential as a nation and a regional leader is immense. But for the time being, it is working contrary to U.S. interests and against regional stability. If Turkey is unwilling to live up to its promise as a bridge between sects and civilizations, it should be bypassed in the formulation of U.S. strategy for the region.
During much of the Bush administration, American excesses hurt ties with Turkey. Now, under the Obama administration, the blame for an unproductive relationship resides principally with Ankara. Turkey became too small a stage for the domineering prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Armed with the expansive foreign-policy vision and zeal of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey entered into one of the most frenetic periods of diplomatic engagement in recent history, barnstorming the Middle East to solve the stickiest problems from Lebanon to Somalia. Erdogan was not shy about choosing sides—most often those that won political points at home and on the Arab street—with little regard for coordination with Washington. Stinging rhetoric was de rigueur; results were lacking. While Erdogan was usually careful to avoid outright anti-Americanism, he did attack American ambassadors to Turkey and routinely decried the moral bankruptcy of the West. He routinely trashed Israel, welcomed photo-ops with fringe figures such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and publicly challenged and tested NATO and the European Union’s commitment to Turkey. While he did not seek to break relations with America and the West, he permanently and systematically devalued them in the minds of the Turkish public.
All the while, the high-level engagement liberally given from President Obama and other senior U.S. officials to Erdogan and Davutoglu—reciprocal state visits, dozens of phone calls, and more—only reaffirmed Ankara’s incorrect understanding of the relationship. Washington reached out repeatedly—but not strategically—in reaction to events in Turkey’s surrounding region. The Obama administration believed it was showing a more inclusive U.S. approach that could heal wounds and build consensus on emerging crises. It was wrong. To Erdogan and his cronies, the engagement consistently affirmed that the United States needed Turkey more than Turkey needed the United States. The relationship felt transactional, with America running up a tab. That disconnect was understood by the serious cadre of career Turkey-watchers spread across the U.S. government, but senior U.S. officials and many Washington foreign-policy elites continue to observe as a tenet of unswerving faith that the United States might inadvertently “lose Turkey” if its leaders are ever pressed too hard or disagreed too publicly. This is not true. Multiple historical instances have shown how critical the U.S. alliance is to Turkey, and that while tough talk may cause momentary disruptions in the relationship, clear statement of policy from the United States achieves greater results.
Worst of all, America’s indulgent approach accelerated Turkey’s internal political challenges. After this summer’s Gezi Park protests and Erdogan’s authoritarian reaction, Turkish democracy can best be described as fragile. Turkey’s civilian government may have solidified control over a long-meddling military, but the judiciary is deeply flawed and basic freedoms of the press, assembly, and expression have eroded. America has said too little about this. And despite Turkey’s economic miracle of the past decade, the growing democracy deficit coupled with corruption and foreign account deficits, including hydrocarbons dependency on Russia and Iran, hobble next-tier development prospects. Europe has also abrogated its responsibilities, failing to invigorate the European Union accession process for Turkey and somewhat gleeful that Turkey is increasingly easy to dismiss as a backsliding democracy.
Erdogan has become unwilling to play the moderating and bridging role that Turkish President Abdullah Gul understands is much better suited for Turkey. Erdogan has directed his greatest ire against the leaders of four pivotal countries—Iraq, Syria, post-coup Egypt, and Israel—and, having grown frustrated with the inability of Turkish soft power to change the facts on the ground, he has turned increasingly to his trusted advisor Hakan Fidan and the Turkish National Intelligence Organization. If its involvement in Syria is any indicator, Turkey is on a very dangerous path with potential for sowing greater instability and blowback on itself from the radical and sectarian forces it is unleashing in the region. Through its role in training and arming the opposition and allowing its border to be an open frontier to opposition fighters and its own territory a military staging post, Turkey is today up to its neck in a covert proxy war against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. This includes sponsorship of the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist organization.
Ankara is also seized with how Syria will affect Kurdish separatist aspirations in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey itself. For long-time Turkey watchers, new outreach to Kurdish separatist leaders in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is not a sign of peace but cause for serious concern. The situation is unraveling, and Erdogan is attempting to co-opt the worst case scenario from his perspective, which would be the declaration of an independent Kurdish state in Syria, with contagion to Turkey and Iraq. Turkish willingness to engage with Kurdish separatist leaders it has avoided for decades appears mostly an empty strategy to buy time and space with the hope that the situation in Syria will resolve on more favorable terms.
Turkey has also played a dangerous game by encouraging the split between Erbil and Baghdad. Through his harsh rhetoric and outspoken support for fringe Iraqi Arab Sunni opposition, Erdogan has made a mortal enemy of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki—hardly playing the stabilizing role the United States had hoped when it withdrew its forces in December 2011. Ideally, Turkey would play a mediating role between groups ahead of the 2014 Iraqi national elections, but it appears poised instead to try to play kingmaker, going head to head with Iran in its involvement in Iraqi internal politics.
In Egypt, Turkey has backed ousted president Mohamed Morsi to the hilt and decried the West for allowing a coup. Turkey may be on the right side of history in this case, but its shrill denouncement of the event and Erdogan’s exploit of circumstances to gain domestic political points and try to put the stink of his own autocratic response to Gezi Park behind him is hardly commendable. Erdogan has also chosen to again play the Israel and Jewish card, accusing Israel and a “French Jew” of responsibility for the coup based on YouTube footage of public comments by French intellectual Bernard Henri Lévy and Israel Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni. Turkey is hardly aiding the region through sharp, divisive words alone. Turkey went in the span of five years from a source of inspiration guided by a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to a pariah with a regional policy most akin to Iran’s. It can do better.
Samuel J. Brannen is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Image: Flickr/Greece PMO. CC BY-SA 2.0.