Decline of U.S. – Turkish Alliance

An interesting piece in today’s CSM explores “Why Turks no longer love the U.S..”

The US has hailed Turkey as moderate Islamic democracy, the kind it would like to see develop elsewhere. It’s a key NATO ally, with US aircraft stationed here. Yet, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Ankara Friday to defuse tensions over Kurdish rebels operating in Iraq, she faces a nation that is now the most anti-American in the world, according to one survey.


“People have become accustomed to this plot line of America being a threat to Turkish national security. This was inconceivable five years ago, but now it has come to be the prevailing view,” says Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.

That perception has been reinforced in the past two years by some of Turkey’s most popular books and films which portray the US and Turkey at odds — if not at war. Turkey’s all-time box office champ, 2006’s “Valley of the Wolves,” saw a ragtag Turkish force square off heroically against a whole division of bloodthirsty American soldiers in northern Iraq. “Metal Storm,” a bestselling political fantasy book from the year before, went even further, describing an all out war between Ankara and Washington in the not so distant future (the year 2007, to be exact), in which Turkey ultimately prevails with the help of Russia and the European Union.

Analysts say the public’s mood represents a trend that has worrying implications for the future health of the ties between the two NATO allies. “The public is really convinced that the United States is no longer a friend and ally. That is really frustrating,” says Professor Dagi.

Real life events have also done little to improve America’s image in Turkey. The recent passage by a US congressional committee of a resolution recognizing the mass killing of Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide — something Turkey strongly rejects — set public opinion aflame. At the same time, the renewed attacks on Turkish forces by PKK guerrillas have only strengthened the widespread belief that Washington is doing little to get rid of the PKK in northern Iraq. Ankara has been building up its troops on the Iraqi border and threatening an invasion, something Washington strongly opposes.


But experts say Turkey’s growing anti-Americanism also has a domestic element. The success of the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forced Turkey to confront the issue of how to reconcile secularism with Islam, while the renewal of PKK violence has again brought to the surface the decades-long struggle to square a strong national Turkish identity with the country’s diverse ethnic identities. “Turkey is caught right now between East and West, between Islam and secularism, between Kurdish and Turkish nationalism,” says Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Since the cold war ended, we are living in an era where all the problems that defined the Turkish Republic in the early years are back, and Turkey is blaming the West for this.”

The Rice visit and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s trip to the White House on Nov. 5 are part of an effort to stave off any further deterioration in US-Turkish relations. “I will openly tell him [President George Bush] that we expect concrete, immediate steps against the terrorists,” Mr. Erdogan recently told parliamentarians from his party. “The problem of the PKK terrorist organization is a test of sincerity for everybody,” he said. “This test carries great importance for the region and in determining the fate of our future relations.”

It’s easy to blame the Bush administration for the decline in U.S.-Turkish relations but Taspinar is right: It’s a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in Congress have pushed the ridiculously provocative and unhelpful Genocide declaration over the objections of the administration. More importantly, though, the rising power of Islamists naturally conflicted with U.S. policy in the aftermath of 9/11 and that would have been just as true under a Gore Administration.

In March 2003, the Islamists in Turkey’s parliament rejected an American request to base troops in Turkey for the ground war in Iraq, despite the strong support of Erdogan and former PM Abdullah Gul. Relations haven’t been the same since. But, clearly, the vote itself was an indication of existing sentiment.

Ultimately, the bitter dispute over Iraq will fade, just as it did with both France and Germany. Turkey is absolutely crucial to the whole region and both countries need each other’s cooperation desperately. The cultural rift, though, may take much longer to heal.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.