Analysts are warning that relations between Turkey and the United States may be heading for a period of volatility, particularly in the wake of the botched May 31 Israeli commando raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, along with Ankara’s recent decision to vote “no” in the United Nations Security Council on sanctions against Iran.
“There is a ceiling above which Turkish-American relations cannot improve, and there’s a floor which it can’t go below. But we are getting pretty close to the floor and the ability of the two countries to improve their relations really has a huge question mark over it. We are now talking about an undeclared crisis in the relations,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Indeed, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, Philip Gordon, the State Department’s top official for European and Eurasian affairs seemed to echo that assessment. Gordon suggested that Turkey needed to take demonstrable action to affirm its commitment to both the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.
Ankara, in recent years, has been plotting an increasingly independent and ambitious foreign policy course, one that sees an increased role for itself in regional and even global affairs. But observers say Turkey’s role in the Gaza flotilla incident and its subsequent harsh rhetoric against Israel, as well as its decision regarding the Iran sanctions vote, have brought into sharper relief some of the differences between Ankara’s and Washington’s approach on some key issues. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“I think the administration realizes it has a problem with Turkey, but it’s not a major rift. It’s subtler than that. I think what they will do is start looking at Turkey at a more transactional level for a while, meaning ‘What are you doing for me?’ and ‘This is what I can do for you,’” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “In the past we would have jumped through hoops for the Turks, but the Turks need to start being more sensitive to our concerns,” Barkey added.
On the other hand, things may be less subtle in Congress, Barkey warned. “The fact that the Hamas and Iran issues coincided within a week of each other have created a combustible situation on the Hill,” he said. “The Turks have a problem on the Hill.”
Speaking at a recent news conference, Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana considered to be a Congressional supporter of Turkey, told reporters: “There will be a cost, if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel. It will bear upon my view and I believe the view of many members of Congress on the state of the relationship with Turkey.”
Sensing trouble, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) dispatched in mid-June a team of legislators and party members to Washington in order to engage in damage control. But the mission met with limited success. “The atmosphere in Washington was not the most cordial one,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, the AKP’s Deputy Chairman of External Affairs.
“Especially in the House, the atmosphere was fully demonstrating that American legislators have been convinced that the flotilla incident and the [Security Council sanctions] vote on Iran are part and parcel of the same thing,” Kiniklioglu said. “Turkey and the United States don’t disagree on the objectives when it comes to Iran. We disagree about how to get there. This is a point we tried to make clear.”
Kiniklioglu suggested that Turkey and the United States should “compartmentalize” its relations. “Just because we can’t agree on how to prevent a nuclear Iran, that does not mean a rupture in the whole relationship,” Kiniklioglu said. “There has to be some sanity about how the relationship is discussed.”
To a certain extent, tension between Ankara and Washington is nothing new. What is different now, noted Carnegie’s Barkey, is that Ankara’s independent foreign policy course creates more opportunities for Turkey and the United States to have policy disagreements.
“The Turkish-American relationship was always difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. But on the other hand, the difference between then and now is that Turkish foreign policy used to be more self centered. Now, to their credit, they are playing a more global role, but that has meant that the points of friction have increased as a result,” he said.
Sinan Ulgen, Chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank, says some of the tension with Washington may be built in to what is a fundamental and ambitious restructuring by the AKP government of Turkey’s previously more cautious and inward-looking foreign policy
“I don’t think the government has an anti-West agenda,” Ulgen said. “I think that Turkey cares less about how its foreign policy initiatives will be received in the Western capitals, and in particular Washington. This is very different from before.”
It’s a new reality that Washington appears to be coming to terms with. In another recent interview, this one with the British Broadcasting Corp,, the State Department’s Gordon said: “We’re going to work very hard to preserve this partnership and cooperation.”
Still, he added: “We never set as a blanket rule that everything Turkey does in the Middle East would be something we support, and there are times when we have differences with Turkey, and I suspect that it’s going to be that way for some time.”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Kebabistan blog.