The Turkish-American marriage, solemnized by Ankara’s accession to NATO in 1952, is on the rocks. The partners were ill-matched from the beginning but stayed together so long as the Soviet threat loomed and the Turkish military was in charge.
The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan characterized it, disappeared more than three decades ago. Nearly two decades of rule by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have transformed Turkey. In Abraham Lincoln’s enduring words, the resulting "passion" has strained the "bonds of affection" between the two nations to the breaking point and perhaps beyond. The incoming Biden administration should stop treating Ankara as an ally and instead recognize it as the independent and often hostile power that it has become.
Tensions have long been evident. Although the AKP’s triumph in 2003 was not welcomed by Washington, which had grown comfortable with the secular nationalists who dominated Turkish politics and the generals who stood behind them, he began cautiously, using domestic liberal and foreign, especially European, support to dismantle the military-first regime. Erdogan’s early reforms won backing even from academics and feminists, who found his government more open than the ruthless nationalists replaced by the AKP. However, his professed retreat from Islamism and support for democracy was always suspect, and within a decade he acted on very different ideas.
Over time he centralized power, pushed aside old colleagues, concocted fantastic conspiracy charges against perceived enemies, deployed state agencies against opposition businessmen, detained journalists, seized critical media, arrested political opponents, and ousted opposition officials on dubious charges. He also variously used Islamism and nationalism to win increasingly unfair elections. The attempted 2016 coup became his Reichstag fire, allowing him to arrest around 100,000 people, most on contrived, often risible charges; 150,000 more were fired from public and private jobs. Hundreds of banks, businesses, schools, and other organizations were closed or confiscated.
Last year he took another step toward dictatorship. Until March 2019 he accepted ballots as actually cast, despite manipulating the overall contest. But after his party lost Istanbul’s mayoralty race he forced a repeat. The result was an electoral wipeout, increasing skepticism that he will count votes fairly next time.
Erdogan also increased his appeal to Islamic fundamentalists. In July he turned the former Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. After France’s President Emmanuel Macron responded harshly to the latest Islamic terrorist attacks in October Erdogan launched vitriolic attacks on Macron in a transparent play for hardline Islamist support.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom warned: "Religious freedom conditions in Turkey remain worrisome, with the perpetuation of restrictive and intrusive governmental policies on religious practice and a marked increase in incidents of vandalism and societal violence against religious minorities. The government continues to unduly interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities by preventing the election of board members for non-Muslim foundations and by introducing new limitations on the long-delayed election of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s patriarch. Religious minorities in Turkey have expressed concerns that governmental rhetoric and policies contribute to an increasingly hostile environment and implicitly encourage acts of societal aggression and violence."
Economic growth once was Erdogan’s most important political asset. No longer, however, and Turkey’s troubled economy likely will lead him to intensify political repression, further demonize non-Muslims, and undertake new foreign adventures. Indeed, from Washington’s perspective the biggest problem with the Erdogan government is its increasingly adversarial foreign policy.
That too has been long in the making. In 2003 the new AKP government rejected President George W. Bush’s request to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That proved to be a wise decision, given the tragic consequences of the Iraq invasion, but nevertheless angered a US administration suffused with overweening hubris, incompetent ambition, and murderous sanctimony. In turn, Ankara, having fought a lengthy and brutal campaign against Kurdish separatists at home, was concerned about the invasion’s impact on neighboring Kurdistan, the autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq’s north.
The Erdogan government later allowed the US to use Incirlik Air Base against the Islamic State in Syria, but not in Iraq to defend Kurdistan when threatened by ISIS. Amid the Syrian imbroglio, in which Washington intervened more because it could than because there was a compelling reason to do so, Ankara allowed Islamic State traffic across the border. Erdogan’s own family may have profited from the sale of plundered oil.
In 2015 he risked war with Russia, before paradoxically moving closer to NATO’s main adversary. The two governments cooperated in Syria, to Washington’s great discomfort, and in 2017 Turkey purchased Russian S-400 missiles, causing the US to cancel Ankara’s participation in the F-35 program. Last week, the administration added sanctions on the agency which handles Turkish military procurement after three years of hemming and hawing – Trump had termed the penalties "not really fair." The punishment was mild, "designed to push the Turks, but not trash things," said Daniel Fried, formerly of the State Department, where he dealt with Turkey. Nevertheless, Ankara threatened to retaliate.
Moreover, the Erdogan government invaded Syria to strike the Kurdish militia which had worked with Washington against ISIS. For a time US and Turkish forces nervously faced off in northern Syria. No one quite imagined war breaking out between the two, but anything seemed possible. Erdogan also backed radical Syrian insurgents, including the local al-Qaeda affiliate, against the Damascus government and deployed the same forces, as de facto mercenaries, against the Syrian Kurds, and later in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Indeed, claims that Erdogan wants to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire look increasingly accurate. Three years ago on a visit to Greece he said he wanted to renegotiate the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which birthed modern Turkey. The Turkish military’s role within both Iraq and Syria raised concerns about Ankara’s territorial annexations. Erdogan did not put critics at ease when he observed: "We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country."
Turkish geopolitical ambitions elsewhere also appear to have steadily grown. Ankara has actively intervened in Libya and ignored the UN ban on arms sales, as well as European attempts at enforcement. The Erdogan government also has adopted the once radical idea of a Blue Homeland, promoted by some elements of the navy, which claims much of the Aegean and Mediterranean as Turkish waters. One Ankara official proclaimed: "We are tearing up and throwing away maps of the Eastern Mediterranean that imprison us on the mainland."
The Erdogan government has promoted hydrocarbon development in the Eastern Mediterranean that violates Cypriot and Greek territorial waters. (Some activities have been conducted in the name of the statelet created by and recognized only by Ankara, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.) Turkey also has routinely violated territorial waters surrounding and airspace over Greek islands desired by Ankara. Turkey’s increasingly contentious activities have multiplied demands that the European Union impose sanctions in retaliation on a state once considered to be a serious candidate member.
Most recently, Turkey helped arm Azerbaijan and backed its resumption of war against Armenia to regain territory lost after the two Central Asian nations left the Soviet Union. Although Moscow brokered a ceasefire between the two, the arrangement, which froze rather than resolved the conflict, is highly unstable: Baku recaptured significant lost territory, but disputed Nagorno-Karabakh remains under Yerevan’s control. Like a visiting conqueror, Erdogan attended an Azerbaijani victory parade last week and could instigate another round of hostilities in the future. One American diplomat commented: "Erdogan scares the hell out of most everyone in the Middle East."
That Ankara is determined to carry out an independent foreign policy is of course its prerogative. And if the US had a more sensible and restrained international strategy, Turkey’s activities wouldn’t matter as much, though the Europeans might feel pressure to respond more forcefully. However, many positions taken by Ankara conflict with current US policy. In some instances, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Washington has had little to say. However, Ankara’s decision to foment conflict there had bloody humanitarian and geopolitical consequences, which are not yet finished.
Most serious is Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with NATO. If the transatlantic alliance has any purpose today, it is to confront Russia. In that endeavor Ankara can no longer be trusted. The potential for a Fifth Column of sorts was exacerbated by the withdrawal of longtime Turkish officers serving with NATO after the 2016 coup attempt: their replacements tended to be much less committed to the alliance and its broader geopolitical perspective. Washington should rethink its membership for its own reasons. But as long as NATO is expected to defend Europe, Turkey’s participation has become ever less tenable.
Still, there is serious resistance to addressing the Turkish problem from those who fear pushing Ankara closer to Russia. However, Erdogan’s allegiance to the West is merely nominal. After the recent controversy over Islam’s role in France, he said of Europe’s leaders: "You are fascists in the true meaning of the world. You are veritably the link in the Nazi chain." Talk of reconciling with Turkey is cheap: the chasm in outlook and interests is too large to bridge.
Indeed, its shift reflects not just Erdogan’s preferences, but those of its people. The Turkish public long has been among the most anti-American on earth. An early 2019 survey found that 82 percent of respondents viewed the US as a threat. (More than half had the same opinion of Armenia, France, Germany, Israel, United Kingdom, all of which had higher negative ratings than Russia and Saudi Arabia.) Wild conspiracy theories about the US abound. The relationship has survived at the governmental level, barely, but rests upon a nonexistent foundation. Although Erdogan will not be forever, whoever follows him may be little more inclined toward the West.
When it comes to NATO Turkey’s repressive domestic policies are especially problematic. During the Cold War, facing the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the transatlantic alliance was inclined toward leniency when members trended toward autocracy, as did both Turkey and Greece at times. However, no similar danger confronts NATO today.
Moreover, one reason the alliance expanded after the dissolution of its military raison d’etre was to help integrate the fragile new democracies into the West. Ankara, a near-dictatorship, undermines that objective. Indeed, it would not be invited to join today.
Washington should transform its policy toward Turkey along with the rest of the Middle East. America’s recent military misadventures in the region – Iraq, Libya, and Yemen – have been disastrous at best. The dismal security consequences include creating al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State, expanding Iran’s influence, and increasing terrorism. Even more catastrophic have been the humanitarian impacts, including hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, millions of people displaced, and entire nations ravaged.
Nor is there any reason to consider similar involvement in the future. The region no longer has the strategic significance accorded it during the Cold War. Indeed, there isn’t much reason for the US to be involved militarily at all. Global energy source have diversified; US energy production has greatly increased; there is no Soviet threat to Western oil access; changing irrational and ineffective sanctions policies against Iran and Venezuela would increase global supplies still further; Israel has become a regional superpower with nuclear weapons; Washington loaded up its favorite Sunni-majority Gulf states with weapons to enable them to defend themselves; those regimes have developed quasi-alliances with Israel directed at Iran; virtually every country in the Mideast shares an interest and possesses the materiel wherewithal to combat future threats from the Islamic State and similar Islamist groups.
Choosing not to micro-manage Mideast affairs in the future would reduce America’s reliance on and conflict with Turkey. For instance, the US has no sensible reason to be involved in Syria’s tragic civil war, and certainly no cause to simultaneously confront Iran, Russia, and Turkey in a fight with little relevance to American security. Similarly, the US has no need to be militarily active in Libya, where Ankara’s conduct is of concern. Europe should take the lead in responding to Turkey’s malign conduct toward Greece and Cyprus.
Abandoning the role of regional guardian would allow Washington to dispense with Incirlik Air Base. Convenience for Mideast air operations does not make it vital for America and treating it as such forces the US to coddle Erdogan’s emerging dictatorship. (In any case, the US should remove its 50 B-61 nuclear bombs from Incirlik, where they are of little military value but could be held hostage by Ankara.)
Indeed, possession of expansive military assets make the US more likely to use them: the ability to bomb most any other nation on earth automatically makes that an option for Washington in almost any circumstance, no matter how inappropriate. Rolling back capabilities would encourage a more restrained foreign policy, in which Washington would not act militarily without far greater cause than today.
As for NATO, the US should reconsider its own role, since the Russia as threat meme is radically overblown and the Europeans are well able to defend themselves, a responsibility they should have taken over years ago. In the meantime, the alliance should reconsider Ankara’s membership. The Erdogan government cannot be trusted and even its successor is not likely to abandon nationalistic objectives popular with the Turkish public. NATO’s southeast anchor against Moscow isn’t useful if Turks look more favorably on Russia than their nominal allies. It also is embarrassing to all if a member of the transatlantic alliance is oppressing its people at home and fomenting conflict abroad.
Of course, the US should not treat Turkey as an enemy, for it is not one. However, Washington should drop the illusion that Ankara is an ally. In practice, Turkey is a frenemy, a state with often contrary and sometimes hostile objectives, though willing to cooperate when interests coincide. In this way Turkey is similar to Russia, once the Washington Beltway’s Russophobia is stripped away. Disagreements are real, but not existential. Areas for cooperation exist, but are limited.
The Cold War spawned many security relationships which expired along with the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of them is with Turkey. Whatever "special relationship" once existed is no longer. It is past time to adjust Washington’s policy to match reality in dealing with Ankara.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.