(Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Last week, I referred to the remarkably high level of anti-Americanism in Turkey in the context of H.R. 252 – the House Resolution accusing Turkey of committing genocide against Armenians in 1915 that passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Thursday.
The widespread distrust of the United States (14% of Turks view the U.S. favorably according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey) in Turkey is somewhat surprising given the strategic alliance that has bound the two states together since President Truman’s pledge in 1947 to protect Greece and Turkey from communist subversion.
The roots of this phenomenon are multifarious, but a new paper by Ioannis Grigoriadis in The Middle East Journal offers some insight into why Turks view the United States so negatively.
Grigoriadas distinguishes among several types of anti-Americanism and concludes that anti-Americanism in Turkey is best understood as the “sovereign-nationalist” variety. This means essentially that Turks disapprove of the United States because of “what we do” in the region rather than the values that make us “who we are.”
In other words, Turks object to our foreign policy in the Middle East. More specifically, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was immensely unpopular in Turkey because of its destabilizing impact on the Turkish-Iraqi border and the perception that the invasion exacerbated Turkey’s “Kurdish problem.” The importance of the Iraq war is underscored by this graph, which shows that the United States’ unfavorable numbers rose dramatically from 54% to 83% from 2002-2003 and remain at 69% as of the 2009 survey.
In addition to the unpopularity of American foreign policy, there is a more nuanced but no less important aspect of this phenomenon.
The division in Turkish politics and society between the secular elite composed of the military, judiciary, and bureaucracy and the more religiously-inclined, conservative majority personified by the ruling, “moderately Islamist” Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the defining feature of Turkish politics.
Unfortunately, many Turks on both sides of this divide seem to believe that we are supporting their political rivals. While these claims are exaggerated, the perceptions have real consequences.
On the one hand, the United States’ support for Turkey’s European Union membership is perceived by many secular Turks as support for political Islam in Turkey and as legitimizing the AKP government. More importantly, circumscribing the military’s role in politics is a key element of the European Union accession criteria. Therefore, many secular Turks blame Washington and Brussels for providing political cover for the arrests of scores of high-level military officials over the last several years.
At the same time, many supporters of the ruling AKP government are suspicious of the United States’ long-standing ties to the Turkish military. As Grigoriadis points out in his paper, these suspicious were underscored – after the Turkish Parliament voted on March 1, 2003 not to allow the United States to open a northern front along the Turkish-Iraqi border – by this ironic statement from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who ostensibly supported the invasion of Iraq in order to bring democracy to that country:
Many of the institutions in Turkey that we think of as the traditional strong support…were not as forceful in leading in that direction…particularly the military. I think for whatever reason they did not play the strong leadership role on that issue that we would have expected.
This not-at-all-subtle call for the military to meddle in Turkey’s politics was widely perceived as hypocritical and was resented by the government and many of its supporters.
To be fair, managing the internal conflict within the Turkish political system is a supremely difficult task and a dilemma for which there is no quick and easy solution.
However, what Washington can do is refrain from taking steps that will exacerbate the problem. Last week’s Foreign Affairs Committee vote on H.R. 252 will likely strengthen anti-American sentiment across the Turkish political spectrum.
— Ben Katcher