Politics & Policy

Talking Turkey

Our ally is drifting away.

Can the United States still count on Turkey? According to a July 2005 poll, some 50 percent of respondents in Turkey expressed an “absolute negative view of the United States.” A Pew Research poll taken around the same time revealed that less than 25 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States.

Such viewpoints are increasingly commonplace, with anti-Americanism running rampant among many in the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). The recent Turkish film, Valley of the Wolves, depicts U.S. soldiers as bloodthirsty killers and indulges in a medieval anti-Semitic blood libel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an saw a prescreening and then sent his wife and Bulent Arinc, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, to its grand opening. Arinc called the film “absolutely magnificent” and “completely true to life.”

The fact that members of the ruling party have engaged in anti-American rhetoric and shown sympathy toward Iraqi insurgents belies the notion, expressed by Assistant Secretary State Daniel Fried, that Turkey remains “a natural partner in the world, particularly in the broader Middle East.” Natural partners do not give moral support to Iraqi terrorists. Nor do they receive Palestinian terrorists with open arms. And, given the Islamist leanings of its deputies in parliament, the AKP is clearly not akin to a Christian Democratic party, as Fried has too often maintained.

Turkey’s warming relations with Iran, the Russian Federation, and Syria should be a source of concern. Ankara and Moscow have worked together to quash Operation Active Endeavor, a multinational task force designed to combat terrorism and smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea. Erdo?an’s outreach to Baathist Syria has undercut the democracy movement in Lebanon and emboldened Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to believe that he can support terrorism without facing negative consequences.

Although the Turkish political leadership would prefer that Iran does not become a nuclear power, it is less certain whether Ankara could be a reliable partner in addressing U.S. and European security concerns. Turkey’s surprise reception of Hamas, just a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told his German counterpart that there would be no visit, demonstrates that the AKP’s word is empty. Washington cannot afford to trust that Turkey would be a reliable partner in any diplomatic or military crisis with Iran.

Given the loss of confidence in the Turkish government, it behooves policymakers to consider the possibility that relations will continue to deteriorate. Rather than rely on an increasingly unreliable partner, Washington should reach out to new democracies in the region that are more interested in promoting Western values than undercutting them. Georgia, on Turkey’s northeastern border, has become an invaluable ally in both the war on terrorism and in U.S. operations in Iraq. Across the Black Sea, Romania has also been a solid American ally. Indeed, after Turkey rejected an American request for the use of Turkish facilities in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Romania offered its airfields. Rather than downplaying growing Turkish anti-Americanism, Washington should work to bolster its emerging partnerships with Georgia and Romania.

Of course, Washington should not abandon Ankara. As Erdo?an guides Turkish policy to mirror Egypt’s or Algeria’s, Washington should approach Turkey as it does those states: as friends, but not as trusted partners. It is time to listen to the Turks. They remain a democracy, but sometimes democracies choose to go their own way.

Jonathan Eric Lewis is the author of the Spring 2006 Middle East Quarterly article, “Replace Turkey as a Strategic Partner?”

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