The visit of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on January 28 is an opportunity for the U.S. to help an important ally set a new strategic course. Erdogan will come with the usual list of concerns. He will request assistance for counterterrorism and support for Turkey’s EU membership bid. Erdogan will worry about the future of Iraq and express opposition to autonomy for the Kurds in that country.
That Turkey needs help in defeating terrorism will be uncontroversial following the Istanbul bombings of November 2003. The problem will be the usual Washington temptation to pick off items in detail, to concede a little here and demand a little there. Such a traditional diplomatic approach would be mistaken. Instead, President Bush should declare that he has a grand vision for U.S.-Turkey relations, of the U.S. supporting Turkey’s EU ambitions as firmly and unambiguously as it opposes Turkish interference in Iraq. He should state that the entry of predominantly Muslim Turkey into the EU would be a major U.S. foreign-policy success on a par with the democratization of Iraq, a development that Turkey so loudly fears.
By tightening the bond between Turkey and the EU, the U.S. can support Turkey’s secular state in the face of the new terrorist challenge. Above all, after a year in which Turkey’s key external alliances, with the U.S., the U.K., NATO and the EU were sorely tested by the war in Iraq, the last thing that is needed is for Turkey to feel cut adrift just when it is under terrorist attack. To defeat terrorism and secure a peaceful, stable, and more democratic Middle East, the western alliance, the U.S. and its EU partners, needs to work together rather than bicker bilaterally.
In his meeting with Erdogan, President Bush should show that he understands how deeply divided the U.S. and Turkey are over the future of Iraq. The Iraq war threw Turkey’s external ties into turmoil. The relationship with the U.S. was shown to be structurally unsound, a Cold War anachronism. For too long, the U.S. treated Turkey as a convenient but unloved ally, reliable but unpleasant. Despite 51 years of alliance, Turkish and American views of Iraq were radically different. Turkey preferred the certainty of the status quo, with Saddam and the Iraqi Kurds both seemingly contained, to the risks of change. Aware of its dependency on the U.S., the Turkish government avoided stating its opposition to U.S. policy outright. Instead, the government used Turkey’s strategic position to impede a war that many in the U.S. administration felt was both inevitable and desirable.
As a result, Turkey did not play straight with the U.S., while too many U.S. policymakers proved to be deaf to what Turkish ministers were telling them. Enraptured by the notion that Turkey was a “reliable ally” and a “model,” many in Washington proved woefully unable to read the signals of unease in Ankara.
That profound difference of opinion has tempted Turkey to bolster its ties with Middle Eastern states that harbor nothing but hostility towards the U.S. and a democratic Iraq. Turkey held four top-level meetings with Iran during 2003, with a similar number of reciprocal visits between Turkey and Syria. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was in Turkey from January 6 to January 8, the first time that a Syrian head of state has made an official visit to Turkey.
What unites Turkey with Syria and Iran is the fear that the Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi community with the closest ties to the U.S., will achieve autonomy and, in time, a separate state. What all three countries refuse to understand is that if the Iraqi Kurds are denied the autonomy that even dictatorial regimes in Baghdad have been offering them on and off for 40 years, then they will have every incentive to seek an independent state under cover of the ongoing U.S. presence. The options on Iraq are now autonomy or independence–the Iraqi unitary state is long dead.
Such political maneuverings by Turkey are worrisome for the U.S., even if they make short-term political sense to policymakers in Ankara. President Bush should therefore tell Erdogan that Turkey is better served in the EU than in Iraq. They should put aside the disagreements of 2003 and recognize that Turkey unwittingly did all sides a favor by staying out of Iraq. Turkish involvement in the invasion of Iraq would have set a precedent for intervention. Similarly, sending Turkish troops to help patrol Iraq would also have been an error. The short-term imperative of avoiding American casualties in the Sunni triangle would, at best, have been assuaged with Turkish body bags, causing even greater anti-Americanism in Turkey. With the effects of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq yet to play out, the best strategy for the U.S. is to insulate Iraq as much as possible from its neighbors, which for the moment will include Turkey.
The job of repairing Turkey’s frayed ties to the West has already started thanks to the best friend of both Turkey, and the U.S., Tony Blair. Despite Turkey having rudely barred British troops from transit into Iraq in March, the British prime minister has been notably forgiving. Twice since the fall of Baghdad, and with undoubted sincerity, Tony Blair has spoken of the significance of Turkey joining the EU. George Bush should ensure that Erdogan knows that the U.S. will, as far as possible, promote Turkey’s reforms that make it fit to join the EU while keeping an important ally out of the dangerous swamp of Middle Eastern politics.