New Optimism in Turkish-American Relations

January 7, 2008

President Abdullah Gül’s official visit to Washington comes at a time when Turkish-American relations appear to be at their best since March 2003. What a difference a couple of months make. As recently as October 2007, Turkey had recalled its ambassador to Washington in response to the Armenian resolution and amid rumors that the Turkish military was about to “invade” northern Iraq. It is indeed only after relations hit rock bottom that we witnessed the current upswing.

There is no doubt about what salvaged this badly strained Turkish-American partnership from the brink of total collapse. Without serious American support against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which finally came in the form of “actionable intelligence” and a tacit “green light” for air strikes in northern Iraq, Gül would not be in Washington today. It is remarkable how fast the negative image of the United States began to change in Turkey once such cooperation against the PKK took place. This is hardly surprising, since a crucial part of Turkish anti-Americanism was fueled by the perception that the US was “protecting” the PKK against Ankara.

There is now a mood of cautious optimism in Turkish-American relations. It is still probably too early to argue that we are totally out of the woods, but things are certainly moving in the right direction. The perception that Washington simply does not care about Turkey’s security concerns radically changed after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington in early November. It is now widely accepted that Erdoğan’s visit to the White House paved the way for a new era of intelligence sharing against the PKK. Equally positive proved Washington’s muted attitude toward Turkish air strikes into northern Iraq.

There are a couple of additional factors that helped Turkish-American relations recover. On the Armenian resolution front, Turkish public opinion came to realize that the Bush administration did all it could against Congress. The way several former secretaries of state and the US media lambasted the legislative body for its lack of strategic vision proved to skeptical Turks that they could still count on rational decision-making in Washington. The Armenian resolution is not dead, however. It may now be dormant but will certainly come back in the next couple of years. Since Turkey’s complacency on that front will not make things easier, Ankara would be well advised to open the border with Armenia in order to have more ammunition during the next encounter.

Another unexpected development that indirectly helps Turkish-American relations came on the Iran front. Last month’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iran came as a huge disappointment to the hawks within the Bush administration. The fact that America’s own intelligence agencies admitted that Tehran is not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon has effectively ended all talks about a potential American military operation against Iran. This is good news for Turkish-American relations, mainly because it enables Turkey to continue its economic and political interests in Iran without facing excessively negative American scrutiny. Ankara can rest assured that it will not be asked anytime soon by Washington to join a coalition of the willing against Tehran. As a result, the isolation of Iran is not likely to be a major irritant in Turkish-American relations during Gül’s visit to the White House. Yet the issue will certainly be on the agenda as an American talking point.

Another boost to Turkish-American relations comes thanks to Russia’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy. Washington is increasingly concerned about the authoritarian turn in Russia, a potential political confrontation with Moscow about Kosovo and Georgia and Putin’s habitual bullying on energy issues. All these issues enhance Turkey’s strategic importance for Washington. As Russia becomes more assertive, the issue of isolating the Kremlin gains priority. The last thing Washington would like to see in Eurasia is a strategic realignment that brings Ankara and Moscow closer. This is why Washington’s support against the PKK came at a critical time, just when the resentment against the West in Turkey had reached dangerous levels. Now that Turkish-American cooperation against terrorism is more visible, Turkey’s romance with Russia is likely to diminish. In short, Gül will find a much-improved political landscape in bilateral relations with Washington during his visit.