Every year for the past 29 years, top US and Turkish government, military and business figures have gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss bilateral relations. This year’s meeting was the tensest in years, prompting some participants to express concern that Turkey’s once solid ties to the West are fraying, and Ankara is adopting a more Eastern-oriented geopolitical course.
The event, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, is usually held in the spring, but this year it was postponed after a US congressional committee passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. The rescheduled conference, which took place October 17-20, focused attention on a variety of policy differences.
“It's not exactly a secret that we've had some difficulties in our relationship,” Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state and now board chair of the American-Turkish Council, said in a speech opening the conference.
Over the past year, Turkey voted “no” on a US-sponsored United Nations vote on sanctions against Iran and, together with Brazil, fashioned a plan to deal with Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Ankara also vexed Washington by holding air force exercises with China. Meanwhile, Israel – a close US ally –attacked a ship organized by Turkish activists going to Gaza, prompting vociferous Turkish objections. The breakdown in the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process created an additional disappointment for Washington.
While there have always been tensions in the US-Turkish relationship, lately they have become much worse, said Ian Lesser, a Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund. “The debate has become much sharper,” he said. “One of the reasons is that the issues we have before us in our bilateral relations that are most controversial today are also the ones that touch on core foreign policy interests, not only of this administration but of American national security.”
Despite all the trouble spots and dire predictions by some experts, Turkish and American officials continue to insist that the fundamental strategic interests of the two countries remain aligned and that the current problems are only temporary. Turkey's improving relations in the Middle East should be seen as an opportunity for the United States to use Turkey as a bridge to those countries, some argue. “Turkish influence in our neighborhood is a gain for our allies,” said Feridun Sinirlioğlu, an undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Turkey is not moving eastward. What Turkey is doing ... is exercising its newfound influence: it's expanding its trade relationships,” said Robert Wexler, a former member of Congress and now president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. “So rather than fear that new development here in Washington, I think we should applaud it because, Lord knows, American diplomats, as capable as they are, they can use some friendly hands that have different access, different perspectives, different legitimacy in certain parts of the world.”
Both Turks and Americans agree that negative public opinion in their respective countries, exacerbated by the recent spate of incidents, is a problem area that could ultimately do serious harm to the strategic partnership. “We can tell ourselves that we have common interests and are focused on dealing with these challenges together, but if we overlook the fact that Turkish public opinion is deeply skeptical ... about American foreign policy, or that American public opinion in Congress is increasingly asking questions about Turkey, we are not going to get our jobs done,” said Philip Gordon, assistant US secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
“Unfortunately, Turkey's statements and actions last spring regarding Israel and Iran have contributed to a political environment in which it may be more difficult to move forward, at least in the short term, on some important projects that the administration supports,” said Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs.
Even in the friendly setting of the ATC conference, serious differences were evident. The United States, for example, wants Turkey to participate in a joint NATO air defense shield, but Ankara is uncomfortable with how the system overtly targets Iran. “Contrary to some press reports, we are not pressuring Turkey to make a contribution,” said US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the conference's keynote speaker. “But we do look to Turkey to support NATO's adoption at the Lisbon summit of a territorial missile defense capability.”
Turkey is worried that sanctions against Iran, being debated now in the US Congress, could hurt the many Turkish businesses that trade with Iran. The two countries' trade last year totaled $8 billion, said Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu, chairman of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges. “Iran as a nuclear-armed power is unacceptable,” he said. “However, there is a danger that the latest US legislation on Iran sanctions can harm Turkish companies.”
Meanwhile, many in Washington mistrust Ankara's commitment to the US vision for peace in Israel and Palestine. “It's not helpful to whitewash or sugarcoat certain undeniable facts … with respect to Hezbollah, with respect to Hamas, with respect to Iran, that don't seem to get elevated in the Turkish discourse in the way that they should,” Wexler said. “Ironically, we in America and you in Ankara profess support for the Middle East peace process. Hamas doesn't support that process. Hezbollah rejects the Middle East peace process. Iran doesn't have a different view of the Middle East peace process – they reject it entirely.”
Ironically, Turkey's drift away from the West, whether perceived or real, can be attributed to the country’s democratization process, analysts say. The rise of the Justice and Development Party has broken the hold of the pro-Western military establishment on Turkey's leadership. As a result, Turkish leaders are now much more responsive to public opinion.
“Populist is the right word [for Turkey's emerging foreign policy], more than Eastward or Islamist – they are really conscious of what Turkish opinion polls say,” said Ömer Taşpınar, a Turkey expert at the US National War College. “And when there is such a high level of resentment in the United States against Turkey, this creates problems for the [Turkish] government. Turkey is becoming more democratic, self-confident, but the fact that public opinion does not have a very favorable opinion of the United States is creating a problem for the government.”
Taşpınar identified the failure of Ankara to ratify the US-brokered protocols between Turkey and Armenia as one of the reasons that US policymakers are disillusioned with Turkey. “When the president of the United States invests a lot of political capital in Turkey, and there's an engagement process, but in return Turkey fails to deliver on Armenia, and then fails to deliver on Iran, there are big question marks in Washington,” he said. But the same question marks exist in Ankara, he added.
“Why should Turkey always be with the United States when US foreign policy has had major failures?”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.