America’s Partnership with Turkey Is Still Valuable

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

August 6, 2003

When Turks were asked “Which country is Turkey’s friend?” in a public opinion poll conducted last year, 27 percent named the United States, placing it a respectable second. The problem was that the most common response – from 34 percent of Turks – was “nobody.” And that was before the deep crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations over the Iraq war.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul visited Washington in late July in a worthy attempt to put things back on track after Turkey’s refusal March 1 to allow U.S. troops to operate from Turkish soil and the humiliating U.S. arrest July 4 of 11 Turkish special force soldiers in northern Iraq for allegedly conspiring to assassinate a Kurdish governor. But U.S.-Turkish relations are now at their lowest ebb in years, and the Turkish sense of isolation—no friends—is probably stronger than ever.

The sudden chill in relations has stunned both Turks and Americans; for decades, both countries were convinced of their unshakable strategic partnership. Turkey supported key U.S. goals during the cold war and the Balkans crises, and U.S. use of Turkey’s Incirlik air base was critical to containing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In return Washington backed Turkey on what it most cared about. This included financial support from the International Monetary Fund, membership in the European Union, a role in European defense and a central role in energy transport from the Caspian.

Each side benefited so much from the relationship that it was convinced the other couldn’t do without it. Turks were so certain that the United States wouldn’t begin an Iraq war without them that they kept delaying and negotiating over the terms of their support right up until Washington walked away. With the cold war over, the Balkans relatively stable and U.S. troops now occupying Iraq, Turks are left to wonder whether they have any leverage left to keep the old deal with Washington in place.

The irony of the failure to reach an agreement on Iraq – the result of diplomatic blunders and miscalculations on both sides – is that it has inadvertently left both sides better off.

The United States now not only does not have to pay Turkey billions of dollars in compensation, but it also does not have to deal with the presence of a large number of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, a concession it had been prepared to make to seal the deal. It is difficult enough coping with the ongoing attacks on U.S. troops in the country. The last thing the region needs would be attacks on Turkish troops and their potential response.

Turkey also benefited. In the eyes of the Turkish public, most of Western Europe and the Arab world, the Turkish Parliament’s vote in the face of heavy U.S. pressure was a triumph of democracy and independence. With the European Union set to decide by the end of next year whether to begin talks on Turkey’s application for membership, it will now be harder to make the argument sometimes heard in France and Germany that Turkey is too pro-American and not democratic enough.

America may not need Turkey to contain Iraq any more, but it would be a great mistake to conclude that it no longer needs Turkey at all. On the contrary, the demolition of the myth that Turkey’s military value to the United States was so great that Washington would always back Turkey could be the basis for a healthier and more constructive relationship.

On Iraq, Turkey could now offer more than just a launching pad for American air strikes, but the intimate knowledge of the country that Americans sorely lack, restoration of a valuable trading relationship, and help with the reconstruction of an infrastructure that Turkish companies helped to build in the first place. With the United States now desperate for allies to help stabilize Iraq, Turkey’s large army—having just led the United Nations stabilization force in Afghanistan—could also come in handy, in the southern part of Iraq where any differences over the Kurdish and Turkoman minorities can be avoided.

Turkey could also play a constructive role alongside the United States in the Middle East peace process. As one of the only countries in the world that maintains excellent relations with both Israel and the Palestinians, it could engage with both sides and help provide legitimacy to the painful compromises that will be necessary to achieve peace.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States still needs Turkey to succeed internally, as a demonstration to the world that democracy and prosperity in a Muslim country are possible.

The United States has a huge stake in the success of Turkey’s current moderate Islamist government. Just last week, the Turkish Parliament, where the government has a solid majority, passed the latest round of far-reaching domestic reforms—on human rights, corruption and civilian control of the military—designed to ready the country for EU membership. Gul, the foreign minister, has also been pressing the Arab world about the need to reform with a degree of credibility that Americans—or even secular Turks—cannot match.

These subtle roles for Turkey are not as obviously valuable for Americans as were Turkey’s role in tying down Soviet divisions or maintaining sanctions on Iraq, but in the long run they form a much better basis for a strong and lasting relationship. Washington should get over whatever recriminations it still feels about the Iraq war and make this valuable partnership work.