Friday, 05 June 2009

Turkey and the United States: Easing Relations, Uncertain Future

Published in Articles

By Tülin Daloğlu (vol. 2, no. 11 of the Turkey Analyst)

The relationship between the United States and Turkey has traditionally relied heavily on military cooperation. However, President Barack Obama’s April trip to Turkey created an impetus to build a stronger economic connection – provided that businesses find a profitable incentive to work together. But the most significant step toward “normalizing” relations between the countries came when the U.S. recognized that the separatist Kurdish organization PKK poses a threat not only to Turkey but also to America, and Iraq, as well. It was a step destined to ease the tension that has characterized, even poisoned the U.S.-Turkish relationship since the invasion of Iraq.

BACKGROUND: The Turkish-American relationship was born out of, and dictated by the exigencies of the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman extended U.S. help and security guarantees to Turkey, which threatened by Soviet expansionism sought shelter in the West. Turkey, which had remained neutral until the very end of the Second World War, was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952.  The Turkish military was subsequently to become dependent on U.S. military aid and education, while Turkey’s NATO membership was an obvious strategic asset for the United States in the Cold War. Dependency and strategic cooperation formed the bedrock for the political relationship between the two countries.

However, the end of the Cold War was to expose the U.S.-Turkish relationship as unexpectedly brittle. With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, and the subsequent emergence of new strategic challenges, opinions began to diverge. Unlike the U.S., Turkey was exposed to territorial claims. Kurdish nationalist groups laid claim to land in Turkey, and in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. From a Western perspective, the Kurdish question has had different connotations. Engaged in a low-intensity war against Kurdish separatists since the middle of the 1980s, the Turkish state has for most of the time – except when PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was handed over to Turkey – felt abandoned by its Western allies. The sympathy expressed in the West, not least in Europe, for the Kurds, and Western policies of support for Kurdish political and cultural rights have estranged the Turkish military, as well as Turkish public opinion, from the West. Perceived as support for the creation of an independent Kurdish state at Turkey’s expense, the Western policies are seen as contradicting existing security agreements between Turkey and the West, within the framework of NATO as well as those on a bilateral basis.

This is the key to understanding the serious deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Turks of all political hues saw the U.S. reluctance to act against the PKK inside Iraq as offensive, as it seemed to imply a double standard in the “war on terror”. Moreover, many interpreted Washington’s policies as an indication that part of the American mission in the region was to question Turkey’s territorial integrity.

President George W. Bush’s declaration on November 5, 2007, that the PKK threatens not only Turkey but also Iraq and the U.S. closed a chapter of suspicion and opened a new one that made the rebuilding of lost trust possible. That new atmosphere was consolidated when the U.S. provided Ankara with real-time intelligence that enabled it to hit the PKK’s bases inside northern Iraq. President Bush had hence laid the groundwork for his successor to take the relationship to a new level.

In an effort to further strengthen the relationship, President Barack Obama became the first American president to travel to Turkey during his first 100 days in office, during his first tour to Europe. “I’m trying to make a statement about the importance of Turkey, not just to the United States but to the world,” he said, standing side by side with Turkish President Abdullah Gül. While the Obama administration continues to share intelligence with Turkey in its fight against the PKK, the U.S. seems to have no interest in stoking Turkey’s distrust – not necessarily because Turkey is a lynchpin in the Muslim Arab Middle East, but surely because it has begun to reach out to countries in the region like never before. Because of these efforts, Washington cannot keep its distance from Turkey.

That said, nothing concrete may come of Obama’s visit to Turkey right away. But the U.S. commitment to strengthen its relationship with Ankara is significant enough. It should be noted that Turkey found its safe place in NATO unexpectedly challenged by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Several NATO members opposed to the invasion initially refused to extend a security umbrella to Turkey to protect its citizens from possible chemical or biological attack. That naturally shook Turkey’s trust in NATO. And the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam has added to many Turks’ aggravation. Partially in response to this, the Turkish government moved to broaden its regional relations, building stronger ties with the Muslim Middle East, especially Syria and Iran, and also boosting ties with Russia. Obama’s unprecedented diplomatic endeavor offers some clarity as to where Turkey stands in this order.

IMPLICATIONS: The implication of the Obama administration’s commitment to continue sharing intelligence with Turkey in the fight against the PKK is that the U.S. supports preserving the territorial borders of both Turkey and Iraq. Although security in Iraq has much improved, President Obama has reiterated that his plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq hinges on the ability to leave behind a peaceful and secure country. One of the keys to that stability is finding a solution on the future of Kirkuk, over which Kurds claim historic and demographic ownership. Iraqi Arabs – both Sunnis and Shiites – do not want Kirkuk to be included within the autonomous territories of the Kurdistan Regional Government. And this in turn sets up a potential struggle between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs when American troops pull out.

Lt. General Nusret Taşdeler, Chief of the Plans and Policy Division of the Turkish General Staff, recently stated that “the best solution for Kirkuk is to give it a special status – and that is to be completed before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.” Brig. General John Hesterman, deputy director at the Joint Staff’s office of political-military affairs for Europe, NATO, Russia and Africa, said last week at the annual American-Turkish Council meetings in Washington that he agrees with this assessment. Such public exchanges symbolize the growing normalization between the Turkish and American militaries. The heavy suspicion over U.S. motivations concerning Iraqi territorial integrity has faded, although it is far from having disappeared among the military, and the Iraqi political situation remains complicated.

Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft has argued that “[i]f there is a U.S. presence [in Iraq], then they are more likely to [solve their differences] in a political, negotiating way. If the U.S. presence is not there, then it could turn to what we call a zero-sum game, or turn violent.” Scowcroft believes that the non-combat U.S. military presence will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. 
The point is that a broader effort exists to try to end the violence. Moreover, Obama’s reach out to the Muslim world and his desire to withdraw troops from Iraq has shifted the focus of the U.S-Turkey relationship into new areas, such as strengthening commercial and trade ties. “Turkish exports to the U.S. are around $4 billion a year,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, said recently in Washington. “American exports to Turkey are a bit stronger, a little more than $10 billion a year. The state of the Turkish economy – almost $800 billion, [with] roughly $15 to $16 billion of two-way trade – is not impressive. We can do better.”  But, the ambassador cautioned, businesses do not recognize friends or enemies – only profits. Only an environment conducive to making profits can guarantee a stronger future business ties between the two nations.  

CONCLUSIONS: There is no doubt that a new, positive attitude is coloring the relationship between the United States and Turkey. Whether that continues, however, is more dependent on political developments than on economic cooperation, even if the latter can make a difference as well. The future of the region is however unpredictable. Turkey’s Muslim identity has forced it to take sides in the past, and its new foreign policy, which makes it a more active player in the neighborhood, could eventually push it to do so again. The sympathies of the ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, for Hamas and Hezbollah, as representatives of political Islam, may eventually push Turkey in their direction. President Barack Obama’s call for such organizations to lay down their arms may be put to the test soon. But the rhetoric of the relationship does nevertheless hold the promise of a positive future – one that ideally will include not only a strong political and military friendship, but an increased commercial and trade component as well.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Tulin Daloglu is the Chief Washington Correspondent of Habertürk, a television news channel and a daily paper.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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