Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden, May 16, 2013.

False Friends

Why the United States Is Getting Tough With Turkey

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.” 

Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.

It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority. 

PROBLEM PARTNER

Turkish officials like to describe the last few years as a golden age in bilateral relations. Davutoğlu, in particular, likes to wax on about the “model partnership” between the two countries. What he is responding to is the United States’ decision early in Obama’s first term to treat Turkey with kid gloves despite an increasingly long track record of troubling Turkish behavior. The United States had two main motivations. The first was the hope that Turkey could serve as a democratic example for other Muslim countries. For a variety of reasons, including Turkey’s unique history and its distinctive combination of structural pressures, it was never going to be a good model, but that did not prevent Washington from pushing it wholeheartedly.

The second motivation was a conviction that Turkey could serve as an interlocutor between the West and the Middle East. With its ties to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with Iran, Turkey was seen as irreplaceable, and Washington was reluctant to alienate it. Even when the United States instituted a policy directly intended to counter problematic Turkish behavior, Turkey was still given an inordinate amount of leeway. For example, in January 2013, when Congress passed legislation specifically outlawing trade in gas for gold to stem Turkish sanctions-busting in Iran, Turkey was granted a six-month buffer period. The only thing the backpedaling did was enable ever-bolder Turkish probing of U.S. red lines.

And probe it has. As has been documented repeatedly, Turkish democracy has been off the rails for some time. Since winning re-election in 2007, the AKP has systematically squeezed political opponents, consolidated state power, and done all it can to marginalize the feckless opposition. It has jailed journalists in unprecedented numbers, prosecuted citizens for insulting the prime minister, subjected companies that have run afoul of the government to crushing fines, and convicted military officers on charges based on forged evidence. All the while, the United States has largely sat on the sidelines with its mouth shut. State Department officials repeat the mantra that Turkey is more democratic now than it has ever been, and in 2012, President Barack Obama listed Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he has the closest and most trusting relationship.

Turkish provocations extend well past internal machinations to Turkish foreign policy. Take Iran, for example. Turkey voted in the UN Security Council against additional sanctions on Iran; dragged its heels on hosting NATO X-Band radar installations on its territory, which are aimed at protecting NATO states from Iranian ballistic missiles; helped Iran get around the international sanctions regime; and even hinted at Iran’s natural right to a nuclear program and Turkey’s full support of its nuclear ambitions.

Then there is Syria, where the United States has been at odds with Turkey over its support for anti-Western jihadi groups. Or Israel, where Turkey’s refusal to normalize ties with its former ally has complicated U.S. intelligence-sharing efforts. The country’s bolstering of Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority has been similarly destructive. In Iraq, Turkey has consistently attempted to undermine the Maliki government and treated the Kurdistan Regional Government as a wholly independent entity from Baghdad. 

Even more serious was Turkey’s announcement in September that it had selected China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation (CPMEIC), a Chinese firm under sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, to coproduce with Turkey a new missile defense system. The country rejected bids from NATO ally companies. The move meant that Turkey was not only flouting the sanctions regime that the United States had painstakingly constructed but also that Turkey was purchasing a system that could not be integrated into the larger NATO missile defense shield. 

TOUGH TALK

The Chinese deal seems to have been a red line. It prompted at least a temporary shift in U.S. dealings with Ankara. Turkey’s decision to go with the Chinese firm, a decision that was driven by Turkey’s priorities of transfer technology and joint coproduction in order to bolster its own defense industry, caused something of a crisis within NATO. The United States responded with harsh public and private warnings that Turkey was opening itself to sanctions and causing Turkey’s NATO partners to rethink Turkey’s role in the alliance. The United States and NATO also told Turkey in no uncertain terms that the Chinese system would not be compatible with NATO radar and defense systems, and that it would therefore be useless. Then came Kerry’s public airing in January of what must have been an incredibly uncomfortable conversation and other American pushback on the smears against Ricciardone.

In other areas as well, the U.S. tone has grown harsher. For example, consider that when Erdogan called Israel a terrorist state in November 2012, the State Department wouldn’t go farther than calling his comments “not helpful at this moment.” But when he accused Israel of being behind Egypt’s military coup in August 2013, the State Department blasted back, saying, “We strongly condemn the statements that were made by Prime Minister Erdogan today. Suggesting that Israel is somehow responsible for recent events in Egypt is offensive, unsubstantiated, and wrong.”

So far, the evidence suggests that taking a tougher line with Turkey works well. In early February, Ankara announced that it had not made a final decision to go with the Chinese missile bid, and was open to bids from other companies. Given that the French offer includes some coproduction and technology transfer, there is a good chance that the United States and NATO will be able to pressure Turkey into accepting it. Also this month, Turkey announced that it was close to normalizing ties with Israel after nearly a year of foot-dragging following Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own 2010 apology to Erdogan for the deaths of Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Public talk of a thaw with Israel is a clear effort to signal to the West that Turkey is still a worthwhile partner. Rapprochement with Israel is not exactly a winning political issue, and if Turkey and Israel do end up normalizing ties, it will bring some hardline domestic criticism.  Were it not for the United States’ cold shoulder and the drumbeat of EU criticism, Ankara would likely be proceeding with business as usual.

Treading lightly with Turkey did not prevent Ankara from subverting the United States in the Middle East. It is time for something different. The United States needs to institutionalize its new, sterner approach to Turkey by making it clear to Ankara what its expectations are and ceasing its rhetoric on the strength of Turkish democracy, which has made it easier for American diplomats to fall back on a reality that has rapidly disappeared. If the United States gets tough with Turkey in a more systematic way, as it has with the Chinese arms deal, and makes it clear that the U.S.-Turkey strategic relationship cannot be taken for granted, perhaps Turkey will see the value in being a reliable ally and actually become one. 

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