Time to Rethink Turkish-American Relations (2)

November 8, 2010

Last week I argued that two fundamental problems have exacerbated Turkish-American relations since the demise of the Soviet Union. The first was the loss of a common enemy.

Although there is a perception in Turkey that Ankara’s geostrategic importance has increased since the end of the Cold War, in reality, the two countries have a much harder time establishing common objectives in the absence of an existential threat. With the Soviets out of the picture, terrorism became the most important common threat. But terrorism is too generic a concept and does not 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 threatens both Washington and Ankara with nuclear weapons. The second fundamental shift and problem occurred as the center of gravity of Turkish-American relations shifted from Eurasia to the Middle East. America’s new threat perception became “rogue states” such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a quintessential “status-quo” power and it proved very reluctant to join international coalitions to topple Saddam Hussein. In the first Gulf War, it was Turgut Özal that averted the crisis. In the second Gulf War of 2003 Turkey simply decided to stay out.

Similar dynamics are in play today, as Washington is asking for Turkey’s support against Iran. The problem is Turkey doesn’t want to destabilize Iran because it doesn’t share America’s threat perception. To be sure, Iran is a rival of Turkey, and Ankara doesn’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But there is no shared sense of urgency with Washington or Tel Aviv. In fact, Turkey believes the only way to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear military capacity is to engage it more effectively on the economic and diplomatic fronts. Washington, on the other hand, wants to isolate Iran. This is exactly what happens when two countries no longer share the same threat perception. The divergence on NATO missile defense is yet another example of this same problem. Such a divergence would not have occurred when the Soviets were still around and the center of gravity of the Turkish-American alliance was Eurasia rather than the Middle East. Americans don’t understand that Ankara looks at Iran through the prism of what went wrong in Iraq with America’s involvement. In the eyes of Ankara, America always rushes to achieve rapid results with economic sanctions and the use of force. Given the consequences of the Iraq war, this American path is therefore potentially more threatening than Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

The main reason Turkey is a status quo power in the Middle East is because of the Kurdish question. Ankara wants to see strong states in Syria, Iraq and Iran so that they can control their borders and the Kurdish minority. Despite recent progress in relations with Iraqi Kurds, a large and independent Kurdish state is still a Turkish nightmare. To avoid such an outcome, the region needs stability, predictability and prosperity. This is why Iran and Syria’s stability matters to Turkey. The same dynamics applied to Iraq under Saddam.

But Washington and Tel Aviv are concerned about support for terrorism coming from states such as Iran and Syria. To them there is no difference between the PKK or Hamas or Hizballah. They are all terrorist organization. Such comparisons between the PKK, Hamas and Hizballah offend the Turks. The main argument against is that Turkey has not been the occupier of Kurdish lands, the way Israel is perceived as the occupier of Arab territories. This Turkish-American difference in analyzing Hamas and Hizballah is much greater when the government in Ankara is overly sensitive to the plight of Palestinians.

As the Middle East became the new paradigm defining the center of gravity of relations, Ankara and Washington not only failed to share a common threat perception, in the eyes of most Turks, America itself has become a threat due to its protection of Kurds in Iraq. Since the Kurdish issue is an identity problem for Turkey, it is only logical to conclude it is Turkey’s identity problem that is now fueling anti-Americanism in Turkey. And the same goes for Islam. Turkish Islamists hate America because of its support of Israel and its indifference to the plight of Palestinians. And Turkish secularists hate America for supporting Turkey as a model of “moderate Islam.” Welcome to the new paradigm of Turkish-American relations.