U.S.-Turkey relations are at their strongest in recent years, and the most significant reason for that is Turkey's decision last year to host a new NATO radar connected to the alliance's air defense system against the missile threat from Iran. That is according to two experts who spoke this week at the Brookings Institution.
One of the experts, Brookings's Ömer Taşpınar, said that after Turkey's fallout with the U.S.'s close ally Israel, which highlighted worry that Turkey could be "moving East," relations between Ankara and Washington have rebounded to the point where some call it a "Golden Age" of bilateral relations. Part of the reason for that is the Arab Spring, which has elevated Turkey's relevance in Washington.
"But more tangible, more concrete, what put Turkey under a positive light, in 2011, was Turkey's very strategic decision to say 'yes' to most radars necessary for the anti-missile defense system under the framework of NATO. That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Another of the experts, Soli Özel, said that the radar has ensured that the U.S. will not be excessively concerned about Turkey's political system -- that confidence in Ankara's "strategic Westerness" will override any concerns about its "political Westernness," despite concerns that Turkey may be backsliding away from democracy:
"The prime minister certainly appreciates ... the importance of the United States. He sees Turkey's relations with the United States as extraordinarily important and although recently he was very critical of U.S. policy and of President Obama in particular, he is always very careful not to cross a certain line. And in my view, the single most important thing that he has done, which is probably an insurance policy for a few more years to come, was to overcome objections from his lieutenants and say that the Kürecik radar was going to be installed. And that really buys for him a very long term insurance policy. No matter what else happens, as long as Kürecik is there and Iran remains a national security issue for the United States, all these other problems can be papered over between Turkey and the United States. For all these expressions of emotion and anger at times, the prime minister fundamentally is a very savvy, hard-knuckles politician which, when pushed into a corner will make a decision and that decision will never be against the United States..."
"Turkey's strategic Westernness has been recertified. But that leaves us with another question: that is, what happens to Turkey's political Westernness. That's a question. But its strategic Westernness -- you know, 'Will Turkey change axes,' all that talk was already bunk to begin with. But with this radar deployed on Turkish soil it is quite clear that Turkey has made a strategic choice of being Western..."
"The United States didn't really care about the quality of Turkish democracy in the Cold War. We were part of the 'free world,' so we could be unfree for, I don't know, two- or three-year periods. And the question, if we're going to be intellectually honest, is is the United States is serious in terms of enlargement in terms of democracy and globalization, is it going to treat Turkey the way it treated it during the Cold War, or is it going to treat it the way it presumably wanted to treat everyone in the 1990s. And that a question to which no Turk can give an answer, it's the Americans that must give an answer. And I must say so far, I don't think the Americans are any more interested in the quality of Turkish democracy today than they were during the Cold War."
It's an interesting parallel with a subject this blog covers more regularly, the U.S.'s relations with Uzbekistan, and how strategic concerns can override political ones. And for Turkey, all is took was a radar.