(Photo Credit: White House Photostream)
The Gaza flotilla crisis and Ankara’s refusal to accede to American leadership on the Iranian nuclear issue have led Washington policymakers to ask what exactly is going on in Turkey these days and why it seems that our NATO ally is pursuing policies that run counter to American preferences. While Turkey is increasingly confident and prosperous, it is nowhere near the military, political, or economic power that the United States is. How is it, then, that Washington can’t seem to get Turkey to do what it wants?
Most of the responses to this question have focused on Turkey’s emerging foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” its religiously oriented conservative government, and its floundering European Union membership bid. But while these factors are relevant, Turkey’s selective cooperation has more to do with the United States’ foreign policy than with Turkey’s.
Washington’s ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East since September 11, 2001 has increased its dependence on Turkey. Turkey’s geography, its cultural and historical ties to its neighbors, and its status as a member of NATO combine to make it a crucial American partner for ongoing military operations there. Turkey has helped stabilize Iraq’s Kurdish northern region, led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and brokered negotiations between Israel and Syria.
This dependence means that Turkey can take a harder line against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorist group based in northern Iraq at the risk of instability there, drive a hard bargain in negotiations over NATO’s missile defense plan, or weaken diplomatic ties with Israel. And because the United States is so heavily invested in the region, Washington can do little but acquiesce to Turkey’s demands and try to get Ankara to support its policies.
Take the Iraq example. In 2007, President Bush was compelled to bow to Turkish demands that the United States’ military share “real-time” intelligence on the PKK in Northern Iraq and to permit Turkish military incursions into Iraqi territory. American officials were hesitant to use scarce resources to counter the PKK in the relatively stable northern part of Iraq amidst widespread violence throughout the rest of the country, but could not afford to lose Turkey’s support for its operations there. Washington capitulated despite its lingering disappointment with Ankara for refusing to allow American forces to use Turkish soil to open a northern front in Iraq in 2003.
Turkey’s outreach to Hamas following its election in 2006, its anti-Israel rhetoric leading up to and following the flotilla incident, and this year’s separate nuclear agreement with Tehran have been met with similar reactions in Washington: helpless frustration.
There are other examples as well including Turkey’s opposition to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s nomination for that position last year and its efforts to lay the pipelines for Russian energy exports to Europe. In each of these cases it is understandable that Turkey is pursuing its national interests, but it is a matter of concern that the United States cannot seem to shape those interests to align more closely with its own.
But doesn’t Turkey need the United States? Yes, but just as American banks were too big to fail, American support for Turkey is too big to be taken away. The problem is not that Turkey no longer benefits from its alliance with the United States, but that the kinds of support that Washington provides to Ankara are not easily leveraged.
First and foremost, as a NATO member Turkey enjoys American security guarantees. While a full-scale invasion by a hostile state is an unlikely scenario, NATO’s invocation of its common defense clause following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks shows that it still pays to be a NATO member.
Turkey also falls under the American nuclear security umbrella and hosts approximately 100 American nuclear weapons on its soil (the exact number is a secret). Turkey’s opposition to recent proposals to remove those weapons demonstrates their enduring value to Ankara.
And while Turkey may be feeling good about its economic performance at the moment, economies fluctuate, and the United States has on several occasions provided both bilateral economic support and loans through the International Monetary Fund to bail Turkey out, most recently in 2002. While Turkey values its NATO membership, its protection under the United States’ nuclear umbrella, and Washington’s economic support, the United States is too reliant on Turkey to credibly threaten to take any of these sources of support away.
This dynamic was on display again in August when reports surfaced that President Obama told Turkish Prime Minister Erodgan that the American-made Predator drones Turkey wants to procure to fight Kurdish insurgents might not be forthcoming if Turkey does not change its policies toward Israel and Iran. It is not surprising that both the White House and Ankara immediately refuted the report in the strongest possible terms.
The point here is not to criticize Turkey’s foreign policy choices, but to show why the United States lacks the leverage to shape those choices. In the short-term, Washington must placate Ankara given its reliance on Turkey in so many areas and the risks associated with alienating its ally. But over the long-term, the United States must craft a more restrained foreign policy that leaves it less reliant on and in a stronger position vis-