The Anatomy of Anti-Americanism in Turkey

Ömer Taşpınar
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert

November 16, 2005

Turkey must be a truly puzzling country for the Bush administration. In the wake of 9-11, Washington hailed the Turkish Republic as an ideal “model” for the Islamic word. With its Muslim, democratic, secular and pro-western credentials, this unique NATO ally instantly became the strongest case against the “clash of civilizations.” Ankara’s leadership at ISAF in Afghanistan gained it further praise with the administration, not only for the substantial military assistance that Turkey provided, but perhaps much more importantly in proving that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam.

This rosy picture of Turkey, however, slowly began to fade in the lead-up to Iraq’s invasion. In March 2003, after six months of contentious military, political, and financial negotiations between Ankara and Washington, the Turkish parliament denied U.S. troops’ access to Iraq via southeast Turkey. The reaction in Washington was shock and disbelief. Turkey’s decision not only forced the Pentagon to change its original war plans—there was to be no northern front against Baghdad—but also complicated the post-war situation.

Recently, in explaining where the Iraqi insurgency draws its manpower and ammunition from, Secretary Rumsfeld argued that in the absence of a northern front during the war, Saddam’s Republican Guards were able to retreat to the north and blend in with the civilian population. At the end of the day, the Iraq episode turned into a hard to forget debacle in Turkish-American relations. Perhaps Turkey failed to fit in Rumsfeld’s “Old” versus “New” Europe, but Ankara certainly gained a place of its own with the distress it created for the Bush administration.

Today, more than two years after the invasion of Iraq, Turkey has yet to lose its potential to disappoint Washington. As the second Bush administration is stepping up its profreedom rhetoric in the Middle East, it is quite disconcerting that the most democratic Muslim country in the region shows no signs of solidarity with the United States. Quite the opposite, Turkey is often in the news for its rampant anti-Americanism and solidarity with Bashar’s Syria. Polls after polls confirm that growing numbers of Turks perceive their NATO ally more as a national security threat, rather than a strategic partner. One of the flashiest symptoms of Turkish distrust towards the United States is the best-selling novel in the country, which depicts a Turkish-American war over Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

What went wrong? Why has Turkey become the most anti-American country in the West? One needs to go beyond the generic and global phenomenon of Bush-bashing in order to fully grasp the dynamics behind Turkish anti-Americanism. In many ways, Turkey is a sui-generis case. Recent polls illustrate that while anti-Americanism is in relative decline in Europe, the trend in Turkey is in the opposite direction. Moreover, unlike past domestic trends, the current wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey seems to be embraced by all segments of Turkish society. For all these reasons, the Turkish case needs to be analyzed in a historical and comparative perspective. This essay is an attempt to do so.