Balancing a Bullish Turkey

Despite improved bilateral ties between the U.S. and Turkey, there are still significant differences that need to be managed when Prime Minister Erdogan visits the White House, writes CFR’s Steven Cook.

December 04, 2009

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the White House on Monday comes at an awkward moment in U.S.-Turkey relations. Although bilateral ties have improved markedly in the last two years as Ankara has demonstrated it is an asset to Washington in Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan, there are significant differences between the two countries in other areas, notably the Middle East. Additionally, recent developments in Turkish domestic politics raise serious questions about the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) commitment to democratic reform. President Barack Obama will have to balance his praise for Turkey’s regional role with a tough message about Ankara’s policies toward Israel and Iran, which run counter to U.S. interests, and about changes in AKP’s approach to domestic reform that contravene democratic values.

Turkey Breaks Out

Turkey’s new multi-dimensional foreign policy has injected much needed vitality and creativity into Ankara’s approach to its immediate neighborhood. In seven years, Turkey has gone from being a relatively passive observer of events on its borders to a dynamic player with the kind of influence to help shape the politics of the Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asia. For example, Turkey’s recent agreement to normalize relations with Armenia is a revolutionary development in Turkish foreign policy (though details of the agreement remain unfinished). All at once, the policy adds much needed stability to the southern Caucasus and reduces the likelihood that Congress will pass a non-binding resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide if it is reintroduced in April--a step that would only serve to delay Turkey’s own recognition of one of the twentieth century’s darkest moments. There are, of course, remaining obstacles to the normalization of ties between Ankara and Yerevan, including Turkey’s insistence that Armenia take significant steps toward resolving its dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and strong nationalist sentiment in both Turkey and Armenia. Still, Turkey’s proactive approach to Armenia should be encouraged.

...Turkey has gone from being a relatively passive observer of events on its borders to a dynamic player with the kind of influence to help shape the politics of the Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Since November 2007, when the Bush administration began providing Turkey with intelligence against the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Ankara has worked assiduously to develop political and diplomatic ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The recent establishment of a Turkish consulate in Irbil (and one in Basra) indicates that Turkey is no longer the neighbor most likely to invade. To be sure, Kurdish and Turkish nationalism remain in many ways irreconcilable, but the Turks have clearly determined that the best way to deal with this challenge is to leverage Turkey’s proximity to the KRG to their political, economic, and diplomatic advantage. Of course, the final disposition of the city of Kirkuk and the political deadlock in Baghdad over elections could destabilize northern Iraq and threaten Turkish security, which would likely force Ankara to return to a more traditional policy intended to contain the Kurds and Kurdish nationalism.

Turkey was the first U.S. ally to offer to send troops to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, and it has been a mainstay of the international presence in that country, though its 1,750 soldiers do not engage in any combat (NYT). Still, Ankara is an important part of the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, playing a significant role in providing health, education, and other critical services to the Afghan people. Erdogan’s government recently rejected an American request for additional Turkish forces in Afghanistan, which is a disappointment, but the Turks remain committed to their nation-building role in Afghanistan.

Between Ankara, Jerusalem, and Tehran

For all the positives in Turkey’s new activist foreign policy, there are a number of troubling issues that the Obama administration must address. Over the past year, Erdogan has continually criticized Israel over its Gaza operation last December and January, culminating in Ankara’s decision to disinvite Israel from a NATO air exercise in October, prompting the United States and Italy to drop out. Criticism of Israel has become politically advantageous in Turkey, though there is clearly an ideological component to Erdogan’s position. Despite the fact that Turkish and Israeli special forces trained together a number of weeks later, the political damage was done. Almost 60 percent of the Israeli public believes they should boycott travel to Turkey; the press in both countries has engaged in an angry war of words; and some in Washington have begun to ask whether fears that Turkey is "going Islamist" are becoming reality.

...President Obama must be blunt about what seems to be Erdogan and his party’s efforts to use the power of the Turkish state to intimidate their political opponents.

Ankara’s relationship with Tehran is also troubling to Washington. It is important to recognize that Turkey receives 30 percent of its natural gas supply (most of the rest comes from Russia) from Iran and as a result, there is an economic imperative for good Turkish-Iranian relations. In addition, Turkey has maintained that because Iran is its neighbor, it supports a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear development. Yet, Erdogan’s recent visit to Iran went well beyond these measured positions. His robust defense of Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology along with the 200-member delegation of Turkish businesspeople, politicians, and officials suggests that Ankara is keenly interested in a major upgrade of its relations with Tehran.

Domestic Warfare

Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has forged a more democratic and modern Turkey. Recently, the government tabled a proposal to finally resolve Turkey’s most debilitating internal challenges--the political, social, and, economic status of its 14 million Kurds. The so-called "Kurdish opening" would give Kurds political, personal, and cultural freedoms. This new approach will, it is hoped, finally bring an end to the PKK’s twenty-five-year-old insurgency against the Turkish state. Despite these positive developments, there is growing concern among Turkish democrats and liberals that Erdogan and his party are no longer committed to political reform. In the last year, the government has levied a $2.5 billion tax against the country’s largest media conglomerate, the Dogan Group, whose news outlets have been critical of the government. In addition, the government forced the sale of the second largest media group to investors associated with the prime minister and other AKP leaders, transforming the newspaper Sabah from a well-respected daily to, what some consider, little more than a mouthpiece for the party and government. Many journalists, editors, and pundits have engaged in self-censorship out of fear for their jobs.

In the last two years the government has also pursued a wide-ranging investigation into Ergenekon, criminal gangs whose members are accused of plotting to destabilize Turkey through acts of violence, prompting the military to step in and force AKP from office. Initially, Turkish liberals welcomed the case, as it promised to uncover the conspiracies of the so-called "deep state," which was responsible for a variety of criminal activities, and was believed to be composed of extreme nationalists opposed to democracy and the West. Yet the government has increasingly used the cover of the Ergenekon case to crush its political opponents, most of whom are fierce critics of the AKP but have no connection to violent plots against the Turkish state.

In his meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan, President Obama must be blunt about what seems to be Erdogan and his party’s efforts to use the power of the Turkish state to intimidate their political opponents. More generally, American officials should warn their Turkish counterparts that if Ankara continues along its present trajectory, Washington could ratchet down U.S. support for Ankara in Brussels, rethink the president’s decision not to wade into the controversy over the Armenian genocide, cut the Turks out of the Middle East peace process, reassess support for Turkey on Cyprus, and hold Erdogan publicly accountable for the increasing ugliness of Turkey’s domestic politics. Applying some much needed pressure on Ankara will signal to Erdogan and his government that despite Turkey’s importance, there are limits to what Washington will tolerate from Turkish domestic and foreign policies.