Building a New Era in U.S.-Turkey Relations

By Steven A. Cook and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall
Special to
Thursday, June 22, 2006; 12:00 AM

The growing schism between the West and the Islamic world is one of the primary challenges confronting American foreign and defense policymakers. As a consequence, the relationship between the United States and Turkey --a Western-oriented, democratizing Muslim country --is strategically more important than ever. Turkey has the potential to be an invaluable partner as Washington endeavors to chart an effective course in its relations with the Muslim world. However, as we argue in a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, Generating Momentum for a New Era in U.S.-Turkey Relations, in order to achieve this level of cooperation, U.S.-Turkey relations are in dire need of repair and modernization.

Over the course of the last three years, the United States and Turkey have diverged on a variety of important foreign policy issues including Iraq, Cyprus, Syria, Iran, and Israel. Coinciding with these differences has been a sharp increase in anti-Americanism in Turkey and marked dissatisfaction with Turkey in Washington. In an ominous sign that all is not well between the United States and Turkey, a 2005 Pew Global Attitude Survey indicates that large numbers of Turks not only oppose U.S. foreign policy, but don't consider Americans to be honest.

More than any other issue, the situation in Iraq threatens a breach in U.S.-Turkey relations. Turks believe that the Bush administration committed two sins regarding Iraq. First, in the run-up to the war, Washington dismissed Ankara's warnings about the consequences of invading Iraq. Second, as events have confirmed Turkey's grave misgivings about the war, Turks believe the United States has not taken sufficient care to address Turkey's security concerns.

The Turkish position regarding Iraq is clear: Ankara wants the United States to honor President Bush's principle of "you are either with us or against us" and destroy the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) -- which Washington designates a terrorist organization -- prevent Kurdish control of Kirkuk and the oil rich region surrounding that city, and ultimately check the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. The Turks fear that a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would stoke nationalist sentiment among Turkey's own large Kurdish minority.

Much to Ankara's disappointment, Washington is not prepared to antagonize Kurdish leaders who have proved to be reliable allies in toppling Saddam Hussein. In addition, U.S. forces in Iraq are highly unlikely to expend more blood or treasure in operations against the PKK that risk destabilizing the only region of Iraq that has been relatively quiet.

Despite the discord, Turkey's strategic perspective remains largely aligned with the United States. In addition, Turkey's location, membership in NATO and ties with the Muslim world offer a valuable means of leveraging American power. In order to arrest the marked deterioration in relations and revitalize ties between Washington and Ankara, the United States and Turkey should embark immediately upon a simultaneous, two-track approach to repair their relations.

First Track

  •  Whatever the trajectory of developments in Iraq, it is in the U.S. interest to launch and lead a trilateral dialogue on Kurdish issues with the Turks and legitimate representatives of the Iraqi Kurds. If the effort to build a functioning Iraqi government is successful, this trilateral consultative process will support its implementation; should it fail, it will provide a mechanism for managing some of the worst potential consequences.

    The initial agenda for the process should include: (1) clarifying the positions of all parties on the future status of northern Iraq; (2) identifying areas of common interest and potential confidence-building measures; and (3) exploring possible avenues for dealing with the PKK in northern Iraq.

  •  A principal goal of Washington's European policy should be Turkey's accession to the European Union. Given German Chancellor Angela Merkel's more forthcoming position toward Turkish membership in the European Union, there is an opportunity for Washington to work closely with Berlin on Turkey's accession process.
  •  Regarding Cyprus, Washington should take a leadership role in finally resolving the conflict through the appointment of a new Special Cyprus Coordinator, urging EU leaders to use their collective clout to require more constructive behavior from the Cypriot government, and take concrete political, diplomatic, and economic steps to break Turkish Cypriots from their international isolation.
  • Second Track

    The United States should propose to Turkey the establishment of a high-level commission that would meet twice a year and provide a structured and ongoing mechanism for interaction across agencies of government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector.

    The U.S.-Turkish Cooperation Commission (USTCC) would be led by a senior government official in both Washington and Ankara who has the power to convene all the relevant agencies. On the working level, the USTCC would consist of three working groups -- security, economic and commercial ties, and educational and cultural exchange.

    Used effectively, this could facilitate the reestablishment of the sustained, near-continuous degree of interaction that characterizes America's strongest partnerships.

    As tensions over the outcome in Iraq escalate, the prospects for generating positive momentum in U.S.-Turkey relations are diminishing. Over the course of the next two years, both countries will face a series of tough foreign policy questions concerning Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and Cyprus just as politicians in both capitals are entering election cycles. Therefore American and Turkish policymakers must make every effort now to establish processes that allow them both to manage the issues that have created a growing chasm between Washington and Ankara and to build new opportunities for cooperation.

    Steven A. Cook is Douglas Dillon Fellow and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is Adjunct Senior Fellow for Alliance Relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are the authors of Generating Momentum for a New Era in U.S.-Turkey Relations.

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