Turkey and the US face the end of a promising partnership


At the start of the Obama administration, when I took over the Europe portfolio at the state department, one of the brightest spots on the foreign policy horizon was Turkey. Here was a majority Muslim country with a dynamic and popular leader that was reforming its growing economy, expanding press freedoms and easing the once-repressive military establishment out of politics.

It was eagerly pursuing EU membership and co-operating closely with the US and EU on Afghanistan, Iraq and Middle East peace. So hopeful was Barack Obama that success in Turkey could help demonstrate that it was possible for a Middle Eastern country to be Muslim, democratic and pro-western that he insisted on adding stops in Istanbul and Ankara to his first foreign trip. He told the Turkish parliament that the US and Turkey could build a “model partnership”. The visit would send a “message to the world”.

Today, less than a decade later, that vision is a shambles — and the relationship is probably beyond repair. Fleeting hopes that the Trump administration might put things back on track, based on the US president’s affinity for strongmen such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, have quickly faded. Instead, the two countries are discovering how fundamentally their core security interests have diverged. They are rapidly sliding into a cycle of mutual resentment that could easily get out of hand.

The most recent flare-up started with Turkey’s detention of a growing number of US citizens caught up in Mr Erdogan’s mass round-up — over 50,000 Turks have so far been imprisoned — following the July 2016 coup attempt. American concern about the arrests grew considerably last summer, when Turkey began treating the US detainees as bargaining chips, suggesting they could be freed if Washington extradited Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric Mr Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup from his residence in Pennsylvania. After Turkey last week arrested a Turkish national who worked at a US consulate, the second such arrest this year, Washington announced it was suspending visa services in Turkey, publicly questioning Ankara’s commitment to protecting “the security of US mission facilities and personnel”. Turkey immediately responded in kind, with aides to Mr Erdogan claiming that Washington’s real motivation was to prevent its former employee from revealing an alleged, but unsubstantiated, US role in the coup. The escalating crisis will damage both countries’ business and tourism sectors, especially Turkey’s.

Mr Erdogan and many Turks are furious, convinced the Americans fail to appreciate the severity of the coup, Mr Gulen’s role, and the existential threats they face. Many Americans, in turn, believe the greater problem is the authoritarian response to the coup, and using it as a pretext to pursue all those who oppose Mr Erdogan.

The two countries’ regional security interests have also dangerously diverged. Whereas Washington prioritises the fight against Isis, Turkey is far more concerned with the threat it perceives from the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds — who happen to be America’s main partners in that fight. The US is determined to prevent Iran from filling the vacuum created when Isis forces are driven from eastern Syria. Washington is almost certain to continue to back those Kurds, potentially provoking a violent Turkish response. Turkey’s vocal support for Islamist groups such as Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Libyan militias, its burgeoning military relationship with Qatar, and its recent decision to rebuff Nato and purchase Russian air-defence systems — a move itself designed to signal its displeasure with the US — will only exacerbate these divisions.

As Mr Erdogan and his party continue to whip up hostility to America for supporting enemies real and imagined, Turkish attitudes towards the US have descended, unsurprisingly, to new lows. Today only 13 per cent of Turks have a positive perception of US ideas, and 72 per cent of Turks feel threatened by US power and influence, according to Pew. Turkish attitudes toward Americans have never, of course, been particularly positive, but in the absence of a common threat to hold the alliance together the absence of positive mutual feelings will become ever more apparent.

Americans have understandably wanted to ignore these realities for some time, given Turkey’s geopolitical importance. But it is now past time that they start to see and treat Turkey for what it is — a Middle Eastern country with its own values and priorities — and not as the like-minded, close and reliable ally they may wish it would be. That means continuing to co-operate where possible, but having no illusions, and standing up firmly when differences appear, such as when Mr Erdogan starts taking US citizens hostage.

When he first brought up possible prisoner swaps last August at a political party rally, Mr Erdogan exclaimed: “The old Turkey is no longer. This Turkey is the new Turkey!” He is right, and the US now needs to treat it as such.

The writer is Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US assistant secretary of state

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