Getting Real About Turkey

Western Criticism In Historic Context

U.S. President Barack Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, at the White House, May 2013. JASON REED / REUTERS

Over the past year, it has become almost routine to argue that Ankara’s behavior is increasingly at odds with Western values. And it is: at home, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on the press and sanctioned illegal tactics against political opponents. Abroad, it has supported radical fighters in Syria that the United States has sought to keep at arm’s length. 

What these criticisms miss, however, is that the U.S.-Turkish alliance was never based on U.S. or Turkish values, Western or otherwise. Turkey did not join NATO because of a deep-seated desire to become a part of the West, and the United States did not welcome Turkey into the alliance out of a principled commitment to Turkish democracy. Indeed, since its Cold War origins, the United States' alliance with Turkey has been based on shared goals, not shared ideals.

Americans would sound more convincing if they recognized just how little concern Washington showed for Turkish democracy in the early years of its relationship with Ankara.

The United States and Turkey came together out of a shared desire to resist what both saw as a looming Soviet threat. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the common cause that united the two countries disappeared, allowing their sometimes divergent interests to surface. Ironically, Turkey now seems to be the country hewing more closely to the alliance's old Cold War line. The U.S. statesmen who welcomed Turkey into NATO in 1952 might be surprised to hear today's critics question its membership in the alliance for leaving left-wing guerillas to fight ISIS alone, or for responding too forcefully to Russian provocations.

There are plenty of principled and practical reasons to condemn Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. Turkey may have been reckless in responding to Russia, and its enthusiasm for radical groups in Syria has already proved dangerous. But discussing these points of disagreement in less moralistic terms would make it easier to focus on the many

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