In Search of Lost Time: Turkey-U.S. Relations after Bush

Sinan Ülgen
Sinan Ülgen Director - Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), Senior Fellow - Carnegie Europe

February 19, 2009


The past eight years witnessed a sharp evolution of the Turkey-US relationship. The polarizing foreign policy approach that alienated so many of Washington’s partners around the globe was also instrumental in shaping Washington’s relations with Ankara. Issues surrounding Iraq were paramount. The “strategic relationship” was thus dealt a severe blow in March 2003 when the Turkish Parliament refused to adopt a bill that would have allowed the opening of a Northern front against Saddam’s armies. The predominance of Iraq in US foreign policy and the proclivity of the first Bush administration to judge its allies on the basis of their contribution to the campaign in Iraq, coupled with the two countries’ significantly divergent visions for the future of Iraq, prevented any concrete improvement in bilateral ties in the near term.

Moreover, the US was beginning to be viewed less and less as an ally by many Turks concerned about the regional consequences of the US policy that was perceived to be fueling secessionist tendencies in Northern Iraq. Washington was also blamed for not assisting Turkey in its ongoing fight against the PKK, which had been using the territories of Northern Iraq to launch raids within Turkey. In turn, public opinion polls soon revealed that Turkey had become one of the most anti-American countries in the world.

The change in rhetoric and even substance that was ushered in with the second Bush administration eventually came to the rescue of the Turkish-US relationship. The meeting of Prime Minister Erdogan with President Bush at the White House in November 2007 signaled the dawn of a new era of cooperation between the two countries. The US started to provide actionable intelligence to Turkey on the PKK while also reassuring the Turkish side about its intentions regarding the territorial integrity of Iraq. In return, Turkey decided to adopt a more realistic policy with regard to its southern neighbor and opened new channels of dialogue with the Iraqi leadership. Ankara also assisted US efforts to enhance political stability in Iraq as recently witnessed by Turkish support in getting Iraqi constituencies to accept the Security of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in December 2008.

This short introduction outlining the evolution of the Turkish-US relationship during the Bush era is conspicuous in its failure to provide an account of the advancement of a more comprehensive cooperation agenda between the two countries. This failure is a consequence of the hegemonic impact that the conundrum of Iraq had on the Turkish-US relationship. In other words, as a result of the growing crisis of confidence between the two partners, very little substance was accomplished by the joint efforts of Ankara and Washington. Turkey continued to provide support to the ongoing stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, and the US continued to lend its support to Turkey in its fight against PKK terrorism as well as its bid to become an Eurasian energy hub. Yet in many other crucial areas,–Iran, Syria, NATO, EU membership, and Cyprus – the Turkey-US relationship became at best ineffective, and at worst dysfunctional.

The election of Barack Obama as the new US president provides an opportunity for Ankara and Washington to put behind their differences and past grievances decisively and to concentrate on advancing a more ambitious transatlantic agenda. Viewed from that perspective, the issues that may dominate a new era of US-Turkish relations are Afghanistan, Iran, NATO, Cyprus and the EU.