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06 05 02 -Turkish American Relations in a Sea of Troubles by
05.24.2006 Wednesday - ISTANBUL 00:27
Turkish American Relations in a Sea of Troubles by
Morton Abramowitz

For the past three years or so American and Turkish officials and cognoscenti have kept an incessant watch on the pulse and temperature of the Turkish-American relationship After all many are worried about the health of the patient. They should be.

Both countries have had a close history and retain important stakes in strong ties and that provides an excellent underpinning for relations. Nevertheless Turkish-American relations have been troubled for much of this decade. And that is fundamentally because the world including Turkey and the United States has changed radically, creating new issues and difficult uncertainties which cannot be easily managed. Both countries have entered turbulent, uncharted waters. Read: Iraq and down the pike Iran. Anti-American sentiment once again pervades Turkey and the domestic political situation is roiling despite the AK Party’s overwhelming majority. Recent murders have heightened the temperature and increased the polarization of political life.

Turkey is finally showing economic dynamism, it is far less dependent on the IMF and the US, and foreign investment has started to flow for the first time. Unless domestic politics get in the way that dynamism should continue. Politically, significant reforms continue to be made. All this is increasing Turkish confidence. Internationally Turkey has become an important player in the energy equation and in an evolving central Asia, and it has been increasingly drawn into Middle East affairs. Its relations with Russia have thrived although not without its complications. Most significant, its focus on joining the EU has directed its energies toward European countries and increasingly away from the US. The disarray in the EU and the public lack of enthusiasm in Europe for Turkish accession, however, may lead to considerable rethinking in Turkey of the long slog to membership and the major internal reforms still needed to be made.

Meanwhile American policy changed course after 9/11, shifting its focus and resources to counter terrorism and the Middle East and diminishing its emphasis on other regions and on its alliances and international institutions. One result is that the US has found itself still floundering in Iraq after three years and 300 billion dollars and rising with no great confidence as to what will be created there despite the establishment last week of a new government. Indeed Iraq produced the big fissure in Turkish-American relations, and while both sides have worked to repair the damage, the Iraq problem is not going away. Both countries have a great interest in seeing some sort of unified Iraq emerge but that does not mean it will happen. In fact Many Turks actually still believe that the US wants an independent Kurdish state to emerge there and even one in Turkey.

For Turkey the situation in northern Iraq raises in spades an existential question that has persisted since the birth of the Republic—the future of its Kurdish population. With the revival of the PKK war in Southeast Turkey Turkish authorities have emphasizes the need for American forces to clean out the PKK safe havens in Northern Iraq, which the Americans, beset by other demands in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war, do not want to take on. Even if the Americans cleaned out the PKK, it would not resolve the Kurdish issue, which is emerging in a new way because of the psychological impact on Turkish Kurds of the de facto Kurdish state in Iraq. If Iraq disintegrates, Turkey will face a difficult decision on military involvement in northern Iraq. In short until the Iraq problem is resolved satisfactorily Turkish-American relations have a serious downside potential.

The burgeoning Iran problem with its potentially great but uncertain spillover will further trouble US-Turkey relations. Turkey prefers Iran not to have a nuclear weapons capability. If it is allowed to obtain one, Turks will ask whether Turkey should pursue one. Turkey may first have to face determined efforts to sanction Iran, which will create serious economic and domestic political problems. There is also the real possibility that the US will attack Iran’s nuclear weapon facilities, a move with monumental consequences and not likely to be welcomed by the Turkish people to say the least.

Also complicating the management of relations is that the two governments are not warm and fuzzy with each other. They are relatively new in dealing with each other and trust has been hard to establish since the Iraq war. The AKP government seems much more interested in diplomacy in the Muslim world and to many American conservatives more at home in Assad’s Damascus than Bush’s Washington. The Hamas visit last February, rightly or wrongly, was ill received in Washington, which got no notice of it and would not have liked it any event. Many conservatives have become disenchanted with the AKP government and fear it is leading Turkey down a wrong path. Meanwhile prominent secular Turks come to Washington and intimate that the US government should somehow pull the rug out from under the AKP.

Both governments are interested in a strong relationship. The US still believes in the essentiality of a strong democratic Turkey anchored in the West and recognizes that Turkey’s increasing economic robustness and growing regional influence can contribute to the stability of the area. The success of a democratic, popularly elected, religiously oriented government friendly to the US also holds much interest for the US in its wider global efforts to promote democracy in the Islamic world. For Turkey no country can replace the US for strategic reliability in its still dangerous region, for its military predominance, and its dynamic economy and technical and scientific capabilities. But politics also rares its head. The political season has started in Turkey, the government is under severe pressures and management of US relations can become a factor in the domestic political struggle..

So what is to be done? Nothing now looks likely to reduce the uncertainty of Iraq and Iran. The best that can be done is for both countries to consult frequently, particularly on Iraq and Iran, and try to keep their policies together, and in the case of Turkey particularly to educate their publics. It is also necessary to avoid needless abrasions and to develop and stress the positive elements in our relations from central Asia and energy to Afghanistan The Americans can do more about the PKK in Iraq, find ways to help the Turkish Cypriots, and avoid incidents that can undermine an economy vulnerable domestic political change. Turkey would do well to avoid other Hamas like efforts without real consultations. But high level people are needed to make sure things not get out of hand in what looks to be a trying year for Turkish-American relations. Secretary of State James Baker visited Turkey five times in the nine months from the Iraq invasion of Kuwait to the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.


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