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This article first appeared here on Politico.com on November 22, 2018.
I am already sick of Turkey.
I suspect that many Americans feel this way, about the bird and the country. Yet a small group of Washington foreign policy hands—at the State Department, at the Pentagon and in congressional offices—continue to make the case for Turkey as a “strategically important” partner to the United States. On paper, the country looks good: It sits at the center of many of America’s most pressing foreign policy concerns, it is a member of NATO, it is stable, and it can offer foreign partners access to its airbases and intelligence cooperation. I used to think of all of these as strong points. Now, I think they are mostly overrated, and often available elsewhere.
Last year, a friend of mine took 11 people out for Thanksgiving dinner; nine of them ordered steak, one ate pasta, and only one had turkey. Nothing happened to them. The sun came up the next morning. And so, I’ve been wondering: If, maybe, it’s time to rethink what we eat on America’s national day of thanks (anyone for tacos?), could it also be time to rethink what it means to say the United States has a strategic partnership with Turkey?
When Donald Trump was elected president, it seemed the Turks might warm to him, thanks to his railing on the campaign trail against the American “establishment,” which Turkish leaders perceive to be unfailingly hostile to Ankara. Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fist-bumped at a meeting of NATO leaders in July and have spoken warmly about each other. But the U.S.-Turkey relationship still has major fault lines when it comes to Syria, Russia, Iran, the treatment of Americans in Turkey and the fate of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania resident whom the Turks accuse of masterminding the failed 2016 coup d’état in Turkey. After Erdogan over the summer refused to release the American preacher Andrew Brunson, whom the Turks had held on terrorism charges since October 2016, Erdogan and Trump exchanged a war of words, and Trump imposed sanctions. When Brunson was eventually released last month, Trump tweeted that he was looking forward to “good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey.” Indeed, Trump seems willing to entertain Turkey’s demands that the United States extradite Gulen, despite inconclusive evidence against him. Yet, the Turks’ drip, drip, drip of information about the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul likely has not done Turkey any favors with Trump, who seems committed to the Saudis.
Whether or not you agree with Trump’s positions on these particular issues, it’s clear that Turkey today is not proving to be the partner that many of us had long hoped it would.
Here is a thought experiment: If you called turkey, the bird, “chocolate cake,” but described an exceedingly dry meat that is edible only when drenched with gravy and stuffing, would you like chocolate cake? When, three days after Thanksgiving, you are confronted with the choice of either eating chocolate cake’s scarily large drumstick or the cold spaghetti that’s been sitting in the fridge for a week, a normal human recognizes the so-called chocolate cake for what it is and thinks, “Yum, pasta!”
You can play the same game with Turkey, the country. Let’s call it … “Chicken” instead. Chicken is the leading jailer of journalists in the world. Since 2016, Chicken’s government has purged more than 200,000 people—not just journalists but also academics, bureaucrats, scientists and judges, in addition to police and military officers—claiming they all were implicated in the failed coup. Chicken was once thought to be a country that would become a consolidated democracy, but instead it has become an elected autocracy, complete with personality cult around a great leader, with no checks and balances. The judiciary in Chicken has been politicized; the parliament is firmly under the control of the ruling party; and journalists have been bought, intimidated or arrested. In Chicken, government agencies—including once well-respected state news outlets—have become crude instruments to attack critics of the great leader and overwhelm citizens with propaganda.
On foreign policy, Chicken is in the process of buying an advanced Russian air defense system that could pose a threat to American warplanes, which Chicken also wants for its military inventory. Although Chicken is formally an ally of the United States, its leader has threatened American soldiers in Syria and undertaken military operations against Washington’s Syrian-Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State. In fairness, Chicken quite rightly considers American allies in Syria to be connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been waging war on Chicken since Trump’s first marriage. But there is also the fact that when the United States was trying to maximize pressure on Iran during the Obama administration, Chicken helped the Iranians in the largest sanctions-busting scheme in history. As if this were not enough, Chicken’s agents have been stirring up trouble on the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, in Jerusalem. Regardless of what one thinks about the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Chicks are being irresponsible.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the press in Chicken is in the hands of people who support the leader of the country. Those media outlets—known to be particularly close to the presidential palace—have engaged in a relentless campaign of particularly pernicious anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering. This has consequences. Anywhere from 15 to 20 Americans—all dual nationals—and three Foreign Service Nationals (Chicks working for the U.S. Embassy and its consulates around Chicken) have been arrested on charges, often on the flimsiest of evidence, that track closely with the absurd narratives in the press.
I hope by now I have convinced you that no matter what we call this country—no matter how much we dress it with phrases like “strategic partner” or “ally”—Turkey today is no such thing. Its rulers harbor ambitions to lead the Middle East and the Muslim world in their own right, and chafe at the American-led order in Turkey’s neighborhood that render it a junior partner or an asset whose function is to help advance U.S. interests. This is problematic for Erdogan not just for reasons of pride—though they are surely a factor—but also because Ankara does not share American interests.
This is not to suggest that Turkey is not an important country or that Washington should break ties with Ankara. There will be times when the Turkish government can be very helpful. Perhaps another analogy will help draw out the point: You know how when your flight takes off at 11 a.m. in one time zone and lands at 2:17 p.m. in another time zone, and you forgot to buy some food before getting on the plane because you are too busy playing on Twitter, and because you are in Economy Plus on United Airlines you still only get peanuts, and when you finally get off the plane, half dizzy from hunger and you are confronted with Panda Express, Bugles from Hudson News, or a turkey and Swiss on ciabatta with Sriracha mayo aioli? It is moments like that when Turkey is invaluable. Like the bird, there are going to be times and places where Turkish and American policies or priorities overlap, making cooperation entirely possible and hopefully constructive—such as in Afghanistan or in checking Russian power in the Black Sea.
Yet because the two governments differ on so much, those moments of alignment will likely be episodic. It is tempting to believe that this state of affairs is the product of two presidents—Trump and Erdogan—with unique and strong personalities, and that when their tenures are over, U.S.-Turkey relations will get better. The tone might change, the emphasis on certain issues might be different, but a return to strategic partnership does not seem likely. That is because our two countries do not confront a common threat, domestic political changes are our transforming foreign policies, and our values are diverging, perhaps irrevocably.
Erdogan often tells his supporters that the “world is bigger than five,” referring to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Turkey clearly has ambitions. It wants to be at the table, not the meal, and it has every reason to pursue this goal. But as long as this comes at Washington’s expense, there is no reason to defend a strategic partnership that isn’t. From now on, instead of pretending about how delicious the big, beautiful Turkey tastes, I’ll be having carne asada, al pastor and carnitas tacos, hold the sour cream.