What’s Next in Turkish-American Relations?

December 7, 2009

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan goes to the White House today he will soon figure out that the United States administration and US President Barack Obama are consumed by the recent decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

He will also soon realize, in the event that he had not already, that the honeymoon in Turkish-American relations is over. The atmosphere of bilateral relations stands in sharp contrast to relations earlier this year when President Obama visited Turkey and hailed a “model partnership” between the Turkish Republic and the United States. What went wrong? Ankara and Washington have a number of serious differences in crucial policy areas. Although it would be too pessimistic to argue that “there are more points of disagreement than agreement,” the differences between the two capitals are certainly real and growing. Perhaps the most important point of contention is Iran. There is a growing perception in the United States and Europe that Turkey has become Iran’s most vocal advocate. Western diplomats expect such behavior from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or occasionally China, Russia and Brazil. Unlike these countries, however, Turkey is a NATO member aspiring to join the European Union. True, Turkey is Muslim and borders Iran. It also has a trade volume with Teheran of $10 billion. But in the eyes of Washington none of these are legitimate excuses for undermining concerted Western efforts to pressure Iran. Simply put, Turkey’s pro-Iran stance is increasingly perceived as evidence of Ankara’s pro-Islamic tilt in foreign policy. One can argue that this is not the case and that Turkey is pursuing “realpolitik” based on national interest rather than religious ideals. Or one can equally convincingly argue that Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Iran policy reflects Turkish public opinion. Yet, at the end of the day, all these arguments will not change the American perception. And in international relations “perception is reality.” Therefore, as long as there is no U-turn in Ankara’s policy along the lines of a statement that “Turkey will act with the Western community of nations if Iran fails to cooperate in the nuclear issue” Washington’s perception will not change.

Beyond Iran, Afghanistan is now likely to emerge as another point of contention in Turkish-American relations. The American administration has already made it clear that it will need more support from its NATO allies. President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops still falls 10,000 short of the number needed by General Stanley McChrystal, America’s top military commander in Afghanistan.

There is growing belief in Washington that NATO allies should help more. America will soon have 100,000 troops in that country. Britain has 10,000 and France around 4,000. Turkey, on the other hand, has around 1,000 troops in Afghanistan. These numbers tell the story. There is no denying that Afghanistan, like Iraq, has become America’s war. ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, is often jokingly referred to as “I Saw Americans Fighting.” Since Turkey has the second largest number of troops in NATO after the United States, it is only normal that its allies would like to see more Turkish participation in the war effort in Afghanistan. For Prime Minister Erdoğan, however, such demands are like to be non-starters.

Not only does the Turkish military appear to be opposed to sending more troops, but there is also the issue of Turkish public opinion still displaying considerably high levels of anti-Americanism. You can only imagine how Turkish society would react if there were Turkish soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the name of fighting “America’s war.” Sending more Turkish soldiers, especially combat troops, would therefore cause even more anti-Americanism in Turkey. And in case you expect the prime minister to show leadership in terms of educating the public about why Turkey needs to support America in Afghanistan, just wait and see how the nationalist and secular opposition would exploit such an opportunity. They will immediately portray the AKP as America’s “poodle,” selling out Turkey’s national interests by compromising on Kurdish and Armenian issues and now by sending Turkish soldiers to their deaths only to score points with AKP’s “big brother” in Washington. In short, for Erdoğan, sending more troops to Afghanistan could in fact amount to political suicide.

Unable to deliver on Iran and Afghanistan, Ankara should do its best to find one policy area where it can buy some American goodwill. My hunch is that Prime Minister Erdoğan has a relatively stronger hand in terms of speeding up the rapprochement with Armenia. Ankara should do its best to pass the two protocols normalizing relations with Armenia in Parliament. Turkish-American relations are already going through some rough times. The last thing we need is another Armenian genocide resolution in the U.S. Congress.