Time to Rethink Turkish-American Relations (1)

November 1, 2010

It is hard to avoid a sense of gloom and doom in Turkish-American relations when you look at the deteriorating dynamics of this once-strategic partnership. There has been a paradigm shift in the nature of Turkish-American relations. The changing geostrategic context of the post-Cold War era is finally catching up with Turkish-American relations.

There are two fundamental problems that have exacerbated relations since the demise of the Soviet Union. First and foremost is the absence of a common enemy. In the post-Soviet regional and global order, Turkey and the United States no longer share an existential threat perception. Despite the identification of “terrorism” as a common threat, terrorism is too generic of a concept. Anti-terrorism doesn’t provide a sense of urgency, direction and discipline for a genuinely “strategic partnership” anchored around the need to contain, deter and defeat a common enemy that threatened both Washington and Ankara with nuclear weapons.

Second, as a byproduct of the post-Soviet order, the center of gravity of the Turkish-American bilateral relationship shifted from Eurasia to the Middle East. America’s new threat perception became “rogue states” such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, which all happened to share borders with Turkey. In the post-cold War era, with the Soviets out of the picture, Washington was no longer confined by proxy war dynamics that characterized the bipolar system. The realization that regional conflicts could no longer escalate to a major confrontation between the two superpowers greatly expanded America’s room for action.

During the first Gulf War, the Turkish-American partnership survived the test in great part thanks to Turgut Özal. Yet, even then, the Turkish military proved very reluctant to fully back the American war effort. The clash between Özal and then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Necip Torumtay ended up with the resignation of the latter. In 2003, 12 years after this first potential crisis in Turkish-American relations was averted thanks to Özal’s leadership, the second Gulf War proved much more consequential for the future of Turkish-American relations. The big picture was clear: America was increasingly involved in fighting wars in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood but Turkey did not share America’s threat perception. Yesterday, this was the case with Iraq. Today it is the case with Iran.

Making things worse is the fact that Turkey developed a much different threat perception since the end of the Cold War: Kurdish separatism. At a time when Washington wanted to prioritize Iraq, Iran and Syria as regional threats, Turkey remained a status quo power reluctant to destabilize the region. In fact, Turkey needed the support, stability and partnership of its Middle Eastern neighbors more than ever. Ankara wanted to contain, deter and defeat its new existential threat, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). To do so required a regional security partnership with Syria, Iraq and Iran. All of these countries — Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran — had significant Kurdish minorities and were not surprisingly very determined to block Kurdish nationalist aspirations.

But after 1991, the US appeared to be on the wrong side of this regional equation. The no-fly zone enforced in northern Iraq by the US Air Force created conspiracy theories about American support for Kurdish separatism and independent statehood. In the eyes of Ankara, Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus, Washington had become the protector patron of the Kurds. This perception went from bad to worse as Kurds became America’s best friend in post-Saddam Iraq and began to pursue a maximalist territorial agenda with claims over Kirkuk.

All this proved too much to digest for a Turkish public opinion that had always maintained a heavy dose of fear of disintegration –- the Sèvres Syndrome -– due to Western support for Kurdish and Armenian nationalism. Of course, it did not help that Turkey’s own repressive anti-Kurdish military policies in the early 1980s had triggered a regional Kurdish backlash. By the mid-1990s a major part of the Turkish army was fighting a Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Anatolia.

Therefore, in this post-Cold War context, Ankara and Washington not only failed to share a common threat perception; in the eyes of most Turks, America itself had become the main supporter of the local and regional enemy, Kurdish separatism. It was hardly surprising that a radical paradigmatic shift was taking place in Turkish-American relation as far as the Turkish public opinion’s growing distrust of the United States was concerned. And as we will elaborate next week, this was all before Sept. 11, 2001.