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The Effects of the Iraq War on the U.S. – Turkish Relationship

May 6, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


The U.S. – Turkish relationship has been affected not so much by the aftermath of the war as by what preceded it. The Turkish-American partnership has developed over the past fifty years and includes joint efforts in Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. During his 1999 visit to Turkey shortly after the devastating earthquake, President Clinton described the relationship as a “strategic partnership.” At that time, there was overwhelming popular support for the relationship.

On March 1, 2003, by a very narrow vote, the Turkish Parliament rejected a motion to permit U.S. ground troops to transit Turkey prior to the Iraq War. The new AK Party government was inexperienced and failed to recognize the significance of the Turkish-U.S. relationship. Since then, there has been a widespread expression of considerable chagrin throughout the Turkish establishment.

It should be remembered however, that the Turkish people were 95% opposed to the war and the new political leadership seemed unable or unwilling to convince the public that cooperation with the U.S. was in Turkey’s most vital strategic interest. Turkey forfeited a hefty package of grants and loan guarantees amounting to $30 billion.

The Iraq War was short and decisive. The fears expressed by Turks about floods of refugees were proven false. On the other hand, the warnings given to the U.S. by Turkey about the possibility for widespread chaos and anarchy after the war have been proven correct.

At this point, most Turks want to get things right. There is a deep interest in renewing ties with the U.S. The brevity of the war, and the relative stability in Northern Iraq on the Turkish border, have meant that the damage to Turkey’s crucial tourism industry will be far less than Turks had anticipated.

U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities for Turkey

In assessing our foreign policy priorities, it is very important that we keep the big picture in mind. Turkey is important to the U.S. for a host of reasons:

  • Turkey is a majority Muslim country that has been a successful democracy

  • Turkey is a regional power with the potential to serve as a model to nations aspiring toward parliamentary democracy and free market economy

  • Turkey has a large, well-trained, well-equipped and highly disciplined army that has performed well in operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan

  • Turkey is part of the energy corridor linking Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe

  • Turkey has played the role of honest broker in the Middle East, maintaining good relations with both Israel and the Arab countries

  • Over a period of fifty years, Turkey has been a reliable, dependable ally

If we accept the importance of Turkey for these and other reasons, we might want to set the following priorities for our foreign policy:

  1. Establish good working relations with the AK Party, maintaining constant contact at all levels to insure that the miscalculations and miscommunications that surrounding the March 1 debacle do not recur

  2. Make it clear to Turkey that we expect Turkey to work with us to resolve the Middle East dispute, rather than around us

  3. Intensify contacts with the Turkish Army

  4. Encourage Turkey to establish good relations with all Iraqis, including the Kurds of Northern Iraq

  5. Work with Turks to achieve a resolution of the Cyprus conflict

  6. Continue the consistent U.S. support for Turkey’s bid to join the EU

  7. Assist Turkey in improving and expanding its educational system

U.S. Goals for the U.S. – Turkish Relationship

It is in the strategic interest of the U.S. that Turkey continue to democratize, westernize and modernize. A stable and prosperous Turkey will be an anchor for the entire region from the Balkans to the Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The government: the U.S. should be realistic about the populist AK Party government. Many of its representatives in Parliament are barely high school graduates. We should actively engage with parliamentarians to ensure that there is an adequate understanding on both sides of all issues of mutual interest.

The military: it is evident from recent statements that there is a split within the military between those leaning towards isolationism and those who would promote Turkey’s EU aspirations. There is no reason that the Turkish military can not remain strong while playing the role that the military rightly plays in a democracy.

The Turkish people: there has been an alarming rise in anti-American sentiment. Turkey is ripe for a penetrating and sophisticated public diplomacy effort. Influential members of the Turkish media should be invited to Washington for briefings. U.S. policy experts should be readily available to the Turkish media for interviews. More important in the long run, Turkish – American academic, professional and youth exchange programs should be considerably amplified immediately.

The Big Issues

Iraq: Turkey should be encouraged to engage in the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Turkey has the proximity and the know-how. Turks should be persuaded to revise their approach to Northern Iraq and to consider this neighboring area as a significant potential trading partner, rather than a threat. Turkey should be nudged to participate in humanitarian and peace keeping efforts in Iraq.

EU: It is in the interest of both the U.S. and Europe that Turkey’s EU candidacy be taken seriously and that Turkey be encouraged to pursue the economic and human rights reforms required for membership. At present, Turkey receives only a fraction of the support per capita from the EU that other candidate countries receive. The EU should be encouraged to get serious on this score.

Middle East: The AK Party has behaved with considerable ambiguity regarding its relations with the countries of the Middle East. Turkey should continue to raise its voice against terrorism. FM Gul recently called for a new vision for the Islamic world, reminding his audience at the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) meeting in Teheran that the heritage of Islam is peace, tolerance and compassion. Finally, the AK Party should be very clear that the strong Turkish – Israeli relationship established over the past decade will continue.

Cyprus: Turkey should actively encourage the resolution of the Cyprus conflict. It is to the benefit of the Turkish people that a united Cyprus enter the EU. Any other outcome will be a considerable setback for Turkey’s own candidacy.

The Future

Despite the terrible strain between Turkey and the U.S., there is a considerable reservoir of good will remaining. Gestures on both sides would be useful: the U.S. should allow Turkey a significant role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and Turkey should work much more closely with the U.S. on the resolution of the Middle East conflict.

Finally, and possibly most important, Turkey should be encouraged to upgrade its educational system so that its young people can meet with Americans and Europeans as equal citizens of the world. Demographics indicate that there will be a need in Europe in the future for this youthful workforce. Turks should be ready to provide a well-educated populace. This, more than anything, will permanently cement Turkish ties with the West.

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