U.S.-Turkish Relations: How Firm a Foundation?

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

May 8, 2008

The following speech was given to the Economics Club in Memphis, TN.

A few weeks ago I participated in a seminar with the title, “The U.S. and Turkey: How Strong the Ties that Bind.” Here in the Bible Belt, people will recognize, as I did, the allusion to a venerable hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie.” It is, of course, a hymn we often sing at funerals. Maybe there was a subliminal message there. It seemed to me a less judgmental title might have come from another hymn: “How Firm a Foundation?”

In either case, the point then and now is that we are gathered here to discuss a relationship that in the past decade has been seen both dizzying highs and abysmal lows. Eight years ago last November Bill Clinton spent nearly a week in Turkey. Everywhere he went he was mobbed by adoring crowds. A common joke was that when he left office he could be elected Turkey’s next president in a landslide. By contrast, last September President Bush’s approval rating in Turkey was in single digits.

The question I’d like to address today is to what extent events of the past five or six years have permanently changed the way Turkey and the U.S. look at one another, and what it may mean for the next Administration.

To do that I need to review a bit of history. Why did U.S. – Turkish relations seem to work so well in the nineties? How did they go so wrong, so fast?

Paradigm I: the Nineties

With all due respect to Bill Clinton and the very capable Ambassadors he had in Ankara during the period, our success in the nineties was more a function of objective factors than diplomatic finesse.

Consider the context. The Cold War had ended. The New World Order had met its first test in throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. American military, economic and moral strength was a matter of universal recognition and – hard as it may be to recall today — general acclaim. A new Europe, and, some thought, a new Middle East, were emerging.

All that made Turkey nervous. The end of the Cold War robbed it of its iconic role as the anchor for NATO’s southern flank. The breakup of the Soviet empire put at risk in places like Chechnya and Yugoslavia populations with ethnic and historic connections to Turkey. The first Gulf War had disrupted Turkey’s trade with Iraq and the Gulf, fueled terror within Turkey, and created a nightmare situation next-door: a quasi independent Kurdish statelet under U.S. protection. Turkey found itself at odds with most of its neighbors. Its economy was fragile and subject to recurrent crises. Its human rights reputation was tarnished. Europe was unresponsive to Turkey’s hopes of joining join former Warsaw Pact foes on the path to membership.

Turkey needed a new identity. Or at least a friend. Bill Clinton’s administration would eventually provide both.

It did so, fundamentally, because it came to realize that in the messier, more complex world that followed the Cold War, a lot of important new fault lines ran through or near Turkey. The Turks were pivotal on issues like drug smuggling, wmd proliferation, money laundering, terror. They were irreplaceable in containing Saddam Hussein. They shared our view on the need to protect at-risk Muslims, and were often willing to send troops to do it. They shared our vision of an East-West energy transportation corridor, and brought considerable diplomatic weight throughout the Turkic-speaking Caspian and Central Asia in pursuit of that vision. They valued NATO and were wary of alternative European defense schemes.

The result was that by the end of Clinton’s second term, both sides had self-consciously begun to think of one another as “strategic partners” – a formula Clinton himself endorsed during his visit and that Turks enthusiastically embraced.

“Strategic partnership” did not mean that Washington and Ankara agreed on everything. There were real differences throughout this period, notably on Iraq and on Turkey’s human rights record. But the perception of a general convergence of interests, and growing success in pursuing those interests, made it possible to manage even serious differences.

Paradigm II: Post 9/11

A very different paradigm has existed since at least late 2002. What happened?

It is tempting to argue that essentially what happened is that the Bush Administration screwed up relations with Turkey like it did most of our other important relationships around the world.

But it is a little too simple to lay all the blame at the feet of George W. Bush and his colleagues. Washington has made its share of mistakes over the past six years, mistakes of both commission and omission. But perhaps the Bush Administration’s biggest mistake was its failure to understand that after 2002 Turkey was becoming a different kind of partner than it had been in the nineties. That was basically a function of the coming to power late that year of a new government led by the Justice and Development or AK Party.

Washington at the time didn’t know quite what to make of the AKP. It is arguably still trying to figure it out. At issue was and is AKP’s past, and the difference that makes in the way its leadership looks at the U.S. and the world.

Some people call the AKP an “Islamist” party. AKP’s leaders vigorously reject that label. But the fact is that AKP was founded by members of a series of banned Islamist parties. And that made a difference in terms of how they looked at America. The men who run AKP – and they are all men — had had little prior exposure to the U.S. before taking office. Indeed, some of them likely saw Washington as complicit in their periodic harassment by Turkey’s military and secular establishment. The empathy and easy rapport that past leaders like Turgut Ozal, Suleiman Demirel or Tansu Ciller had with America could no longer be taken for granted.

Nor was the AKP leadership inclined easily to assume the role of Washington’s junior partner. Indeed, they brought to the job a very different sense than their predecessors of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities, particularly in the Muslim world.

At the risk of oversimplification, Ataturk and his successors in founding the Republic basically turned their backs on Arabs and other former imperial subjects, whom they viewed as traitors and ingrates. They focused their energy on becoming Western.

The AKP, in contrast, saw Turkey’s imperial past and its predominantly Muslim population as assets: assets Turkey could exploit to become a more significant regional player. They have not walked away from the West. Indeed, AKP has arguably done more than any Turkish party to advance Turkey’s candidacy to become a member of the EU. But under AKP achievement of what its theoreticians called, “strategic depth,” principally in former Ottoman lands, became an organizing principle of Turkish foreign policy.

That has had consequences for U.S. – Turkish relations. It is basically true, as U.S. and Turkish spokespersons have reminded one another regularly during this period, that the two countries share “common values and interests.” They have both wanted to keep Iraq together and set it back on its feet. They have both wanted to keep Iran from getting the bomb and ending its support for terrorists. They have both wanted to see Israel achieve peace with all its neighbors. At the level of goals, the two countries by and large remain on the same page.

But that has not kept us from diverging, sometimes quite openly, on means. Erdogan and Bush have differed on whether to engage or isolate Rafsanjani, Bashir al Assad, Hamas, or Sudan. Washington has bristled over AKP leaders’ references to Israeli acts of “terror” against Lebanese or Palestinians. Ankara’s position on sanctions against Iran has consistently been closer to Russia’s than America’s. And in retrospect it seems clear that AKP’s world view – even allowing for inexperience – was a factor in the watershed March 1, 2003 failure to let U.S. forces invade Iraq through Turkey.

It’s important to note that AKP was not alone in Turkey in its more wary view of Washington. As Turkey’s ruling party, in fact, it has had a strong interest in minimizing differences with Washington and by and large has done so. There is no question that Turkey’s opposition parties have consistently been more strident in their criticism of America than the AKP.

But if you put the pieces together, what do you get? An American administration with a distinctive style and an agenda that would have been problematic for any Turkish political leadership. A new Turkish leadership disinclined by background and world view simply to follow Washington’s lead. Growing disenchantment toward America among Turkey’s secular establishment. Rough spots were inevitable. They were compounded as popular opinion on both sides came to sensationalize and magnify differences that emerged.


That said, I think it is unlikely U.S. – Turkish relations would have deteriorated so dramatically in the absence of what I think has proven to be a defining issue — the problem of terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from safe-havens in northern Iraq.

It is a complicated issue with a lot of history. But the nub of the matter is that, despite its public declarations going back to 2003 that “there is no place in post-Saddam Iraq” for terrorist groups like the PKK, the U.S. for too long did nothing to back up those words. As their casualties mounted, a majority of Turks came to believe that Washington was secretly backing the PKK, aiming to break up not only Iraq but Turkey in order to create a self-standing Kurdish satellite state.

Eventually Turkish armed forces began assembling along the Iraqi border and Turkish generals and politicians began to compete with one another in affirming that Turkey would deal unilaterally with the PKK if America could or would not. When the PKK carried out a series of spectacular operations in fall, 2007, a major cross border operation looked imminent.

The prospect of Turkish intervention finally raised the PKK issue in Washington from the bureaucratic trench warfare in which it had been mired for years to the adult policy level.

The matter came to a head in a meeting last November 5 at the White House between Prime Minister Erdogan and and President Bush. It was a turning point. Bush declared the PKK a “common enemy” of the U.S., Turkey and Iraq. And this time Washington followed through. Turkey immediately began to receive actionable intelligence on the PKK. In a matter of weeks the Turkish air force began to act on that intelligence. PKK targets in northern Iraq were repeatedly bombed, without objections from Washington. And of course Turkish forces have since demonstrated that they can also use ground forces against the PKK in northern Iraq within certain limits.

The impact on the tone and dynamics of U.S. – Turkish relations has been dramatic. As the first bombs landed in northern Iraq, popular opinion in Turkey turned on a dime: in late January, some polls had U.S. approval ratings in the high thirties. When newly selected President Abdullah Gul visited Washington that month, “strategic partnership” was back … at least rhetorically.

Looking Ahead

The question is whether that phrase is of any use as a description of how the relationship actually works today, or may in the future. As we move out of the Bush era, will the paradigm of the nineties, or the post 9/11 paradigm, prove the more apt?

The correct answer, of course, is “neither,” since every epoch has its own logic and forms. But I hope our review of the two periods sheds some light on the constants of U.S. – Turkish relations, on some variables that can affect how the relationship functions, and on how policy and decision-makers on both sides can maximize their chances of getting it right in the future. Here are the conclusions I draw.

1. While the quality of our partnership may wax or wane, the Turkish-American relationship is and will remain “strategic” in terms of its importance to each side. For America that remains fundamentally — but not exclusively — a function of location: where Turkey sits. As I’ve put it elsewhere, so long as America retains the vital interests in does in Turkey’s neighborhood, so long as we are doing in that region what we are trying to do today and have been doing with varying degrees of intensity since the Cold War ended, it is a simple matter of geography and physics that it will always be easier work with Turkey than around Turkey.

As for Turkey, the ability to interact with and influence the super-power that has moved in next door and that seems likely to remain active in the neighborhood is something to which even a government not hard-wired to agree with Washington on all issues must assign strategic importance.

2. The quality of our partnership WILL be different from the halcyon days of the nineties or the cold war era that preceded them. That is partially a function of changes in the reality and perception of American power and influence in the region and in the world. The “brand” is not what it used to be. American military, economic and soft power do not awe as they once did. Meanwhile the quantum leap in American involvement in areas that Turkey defines as its own “strategic depth” has multiplied the number of actors and issues on which U.S. and Turkish instincts, if not necessarily interests, may differ.

Washington learned on March 1, 2003 that it cannot count on having its way in Ankara simply by pushing the old buttons. Turkey’s AKP governments have demonstrated since that, while they will give due weight to American concerns, they will make their own decisions on both strategy and tactics. Whatever the roots of this new self-confidence, it suggests bilateral cooperation will, at least conceptually, be more than in the past a partnership of equals.

3. The corollary of this different kind of partnership is that it will require, to be successful, more and more systematic high-level attention, especially on the American side. Most of the crises in U.S. – Turkish relations over the past six years were avoidable. The proof of that is that they were so easily fixable. On at least three occasions serious and mounting bilateral tensions were relieved by the timely, personal intervention of Secretary of State Rice and/or President Bush. In each case, the crisis averted was less the result of some new development than of months of accumulated resentment stemming from too low a level of day-to-day management.

In Washington the urgent will always claim priority over the important. The natural tendency of bureaucracy will always be to deadlock. Turkey’s relative stability and broadly convergent strategic vision with our own make it easy for Washington to ignore … until it cannot be ignored. Whoever may end up in the Oval Office or State Department next year, early, sustained, high-level engagement with Turkey’s leaders will spare our new leadership some white-knuckle moments, most of them unnecessary.

4. The U.S. – Turkish relationship is essentially an opportunistic one. That is not a criticism. It is an acknowledgement that, given the geographic distance separating us, the absence of a common history, our chronically under-developed economic relations, and, at least in America, the existence of some powerful, hostile lobbies, we are not “natural” partners.

U.S. – Turkish relations have worked best when they have been grounded in concrete interests for both sides, and when leaders on both sides have been able to point to concrete benefits arising from our cooperation. That, in a nutshell, is what has been missing in recent years. Neither Bush nor Erdogan has been able to stand up in front of his people and tell them what they are getting from “strategic partnership.”

Worse, in Erdogan’s case, he’s been unable until very recently to describe what Washington has done to stop the PKK from killing his people. An Administration that famously declared “you are either for us or against us” should have understood far sooner than it did that there is no room for ambiguity when people are dying. When something that basic isn’t right, it is hard to get anything else right.

5. The other side of that coin is that, if the basics are right, and if Washington is paying attention, there is in U.S. – Turkish relations today real potential for gains in a number of areas of importance to both sides. The last six years have seen repeated missed opportunities on issues like energy diplomacy. But the relationship will need to move beyond the episodic, crisis-driven dynamics of the recent past to exploit them.

* * * * *

So, we return to our point of departure. How firm is the foundation of U.S. – Turkish relations as the Bush era draws to a close? The evidence of the past decade suggests it remains more than capable of supporting an ambitious agenda of strategic cooperation on issues of lasting importance to both countries. But it also suggests that in the absence of informed, engaged leadership from the top, it will remain susceptible to erosion and sometimes dramatic dysfunction.