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Mending Fences with Turkey

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
January 29, 2004


Considering the close collaboration between Washington and Ankara since the early days of the Cold War, the difficulties in U.S.-Turkey relations over the past year are stunning.

Turkey remains too important to the war on terror and the reconstruction of Iraq for the Bush administration to continue to allow its policy toward Ankara to drift, which is why Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington is so critical.

Despite protestations to the contrary, there is still some displeasure in official Washington over the outcome of the Turkish parliament's March 2003 vote that prevented U.S. troops from transiting through Turkey to invade Iraq. While technically not a "no" vote-those in favor of the resolution did not have the required quorum for the legislation to pass-the practical effect was the same. This was an embarrassment for the Bush administration, but Washington's expectations that the Turks would heed U.S. requests were based on faulty assumptions about Turkish politics. Even the added incentive of $28 billion in aid failed to overcome popular Turkish outrage over U.S. planning, historic sensitivities regarding the presence of foreign troops on Turkish soil, and the deep ambivalence of Turkey's senior military officers who expressed concern over the future stability of Iraq.

Since March 2003, efforts to repair the relationship have come to naught and resulted in further embarrassment in both Washington and Ankara. Turkey's offer last fall to send 10,000 troops to Iraq to assist U.S. forces and civilian administrators was welcomed in Washington. Yet, the Iraqi Governing Council rejected the idea outright, forcing Ambassador J. Paul Bremer to inform the Turks that their troops were not needed after all.

Prime Minister Erdogan's visit to the White House on January 28th holds out the prospect to set relations between Washington and Ankara on a new, more productive course. By all accounts, the chemistry that developed between Erdogan and President Bush during their first encounter in December 2002 was excellent. This will help create an atmosphere more conducive to addressing the pressing and potentially contentious issues on the U.S.-Turkey agenda.

The first of these issues is Turkey's impressive and continuing political and economic reform drive. President Bush should publicly acknowledge the strides Turkey has made over the last year to institutionalize its democratic practices and relieve the perennial drag on the Turkish economy resulting from endemic corruption and populist politics. Bush's support will help Erdogan and his coterie of reformers against potential political opponents within Turkey's secular elite who remain wary of a leader with Islamist roots. On the economic side, it will signal to the IMF, which is in the process of reviewing its standby agreement with Ankara, that the Turkish government retains U.S. support.

The meeting also will allow Turkish and U.S. officials to air their views on the Cyprus situation, the resolution of which is an important component of Washington's policy toward Europe. The internationally-recognized government located in the southern, Greek portion of the island is poised to begin the process of EU accession in May. If Cyprus' membership proceeds before an agreement resolving the disposition of Turkish Cypriots and the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, this would add further complexity to Turkey's already complicated bid for EU membership. Erdogan is in favor of resolving the Cyprus problem along the lines UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed in 2002, but faces opposition from Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Turkey's military establishment. The Bush administration should express its support for Erdogan's position, thereby strengthening the cause of peace and reconciliation on Cyprus and, in turn, bolstering Turkey's own application for membership in Europe.

The most contentious issue facing President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan is of course, Iraq. The Turks are opposed to autonomy for predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq out of fear this will both create a bastion for terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party who have fought Turkey since the mid-1980s and provide an emotional, cultural, and potentially political alternative for Kurds in southeastern Turkey. Clearly, there is mistrust between the United States and Turkey on this issue. One week before his visit, Erdogan expressed concern that the United States would not uphold its promises to Turkey concerning the territorial integrity of Iraq and Kurdish aspirations in the northern portion of the country. Here the United States finds itself in a difficult position. The Bush administration must be diplomatically deft and sensitive to Turkey's concerns as Washington seeks to mend fences with Ankara while simultaneously considering the political demands of Iraqi Kurds, who were so important to the campaign against Saddam Hussein. To be otherwise would risk a breach in relations with one of Washington's most important allies which, by dint of geography, demography, and culture, can be an asset to the United States in Iraq and the Middle East.

Steven A. Cook, Ph.D. is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently completing a book on the role of the military in the political development of Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria.

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