Is the U.S.-Turkey Alliance at an End?

By Rajan Menon and S. Enders Wimbush
Special to's Think Tank Town
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 12:00 AM

Turkey and the United States are approaching a critical strategic crossroad that will determine both the shape and the content of their relationship for the foreseeable future. The pressures forcing change on this long-standing alliance -- which has endured since the Truman Doctrine in 1947 -- are powerful. Neither Turkish nor American policymakers seem to grasp the emerging reality that this important friendship is fast eroding; alternatively, they have concluded that the alliance has run its course and are prepared to let it go. Neither side is taking serious remedial measures to recalibrate a vibrant friendship that has served both countries well for more than half a century. The consequences for both sides of a failure to make necessary course corrections will be significant.

The war in Iraq is the most immediate bone of contention driving Turkey and the U.S. apart, but it is not the only driver. Since Turkey denied use of its bases to initiate a second American front in Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, the prevailing perception across the Turkish political spectrum -- including in the all-important military and political elite -- is that Washington is seeking to punish Turkey. For its part, Washington has made its feeling of betrayal clear to the Turks and to the world. Political miscalculations, articulated via hyperbolic political theater on both sides, might have dissipated under different circumstances, but this has not happened.

Instead, the Iraq war has put new energy into the third rail of Turkish politics: the Kurdish question. Ankara fears not only that the American-led intervention cannot hold Iraq together, but that it is a powerful stimulant for its breakup, which will result in an independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, bordering Turkey's Kurdish population. Turkey's experience fighting Kurdish separatists and terrorists is long, bitter and bloody. Consequently, there is no resonance at any point on Turkey's political spectrum, or even in private discussions, for allowing something resembling a Kurdish state to emerge on the ruins of broken Iraq.

To the contrary, in the last few days, Turkey's military leaders acknowledged that they are seriously contemplating finally intervening with their own powerful military in northern Iraq to eliminate this possibility, regardless of the presence of American troops there or elsewhere in the country. Recent reports suggest that this decision is already before Turkey's parliament, and that it has strong popular support.

Anti-Americanism in Turkey, fueled by the continuing chaos in Iraq and the decisions that led to that imbroglio, is running at unprecedented levels, as opinion polls have graphically documented in recent months. Nearly 80 percent of Turks view the United States as a problem, including being a direct threat to Turkey's national security.

Iraq is the immediate irritant, but Turkey's search for a more comprehensive identity has been underway since at least the end of the Cold War. Turkey has been slowly redefining its strategic identity since the early 1980s, an evolution to which official Washington has been stunningly silent. Decades of Turkish secularism and an obsessive pro-Western orientation -- always somewhat artificial -- are being adjusted to reflect the realities of Turkey's new strategic position and objectives. Today many Turks understand that it is essential to create a more organic equilibrium in Turkey's relationships with the Muslim world, with Eurasia -- particularly with Russia and the emerging Eurasian power China -- and formalize Turkey's relationship with the West, emblemized by Turkey's current efforts to join the European Union. A new generation of Turkish strategists sees Turkey as a major player across the Islamic world and as a major Eurasian actor -- with or without the United States -- while still keeping a strong foothold in the West.

American policy makers continue to mouth platitudes to the effect that Turkey is a model democratic secular Islamic state, a misplaced accolade most Turks find highly insulting. They view themselves rather differently, and more broadly: as a crucial ally in the struggle against terrorism; as a critical security nexus atop an arc extending from Israel to Central Asia, a zone of actual or potential upheaval and war; as a guarantor of essential water-borne commerce, particularly hydrocarbons; as a frontline state against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran; and as a corridor for the strategically important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

Turks have always assumed that their cooperation is key to a durable settlement in Iraq. Most are astonished and aggrieved that the American debate on how to fix the Iraq mess, and the policies of the George W. Bush administration in particular, fail to reflect either Turkey's frontline position or the consequences of American failure in Iraq on Turkey's immediate and longer-term security interests. America, they feel, has taken Turkey for granted. In this, the American media has been complicit, or ignorant. In most pundits' discussions of how the Iraq issue might eventually be settled, Turkey is almost never cited as a critical actor or as the likely recipient of the consequences of the action of others, almost as if Iraq might somehow be fixed without Turks ever noticing or caring.

The Iraq problem has accelerated a debate in Turkey that likely would have taken place anyway. Today, influential Turks, government officials and foreign policy experts alike have embarked on a strategic reassessment. Turkey's possible reorientation could include building deeper ties with new partners, among them Russia -- with whom Turkey is developing deep economic and energy ties; China, which is building a strong position throughout Eurasia, including in Turkey; Iran -- which is more popular in Turkey today than the United States; and Syria. Strategic realignment could wittingly or unwittingly cause Turks to abandon their longstanding premise that the United States remains the indispensable ally. Turkey's rejection by the EU, an outcome a growing number of Turks are coming to acknowledge as likely, will accelerate dynamics within Turkey for strategic realignment.

This need not happen. Turkey's strategic salience to American objectives across the Middle East and Eurasia has never been greater, especially as Turkey re-defines itself to account for a post-Cold War world that presents both countries with new challenges, opportunities, and a new range of convergent interests. But both sides urgently need to develop a new vision of the strategic future, beginning with the looming breakup of Iraq and the strong possibility that Turkey will fail to join Europe officially. The latter, ironically, might strengthen opportunities for a revivified, redefined U.S.-Turkey partnership.

Both sides need to pay urgent attention to the possibility that the U.S.-Turkey alliance could be in jeopardy. To this end, they should move to establish high-level joint working groups that are tasked with proposing concrete measures to safeguard the alliance and to ensure its relevance for the post-Cold War world. Turkey must also be made a central partner in fashioning a political settlement in Iraq and engage in regular consultations and joint planning to this end.

The U.S. must work with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and the Turkish leadership to prevent the dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq (contested by the Kurds and by the Turkmen, who are supported by Turkey) from precipitating open warfare and possible Turkish intervention, which could further undermine America's alliance with Turkey.

Finally, bi-lateral, and eventually multilateral steps must be taken to fashion a "grand bargain" between the KRG and Turkey that includes specific and enforceable provisions to assure the KRG that Turkey will not invade Iraqi Kurdistan to forestall the possibility of an independent Kurdish state and to guarantee Turkey that the KRG will not permit the Kurdish radicals and separatists to use northern Iraq as a base of operations against Turkey.

It is neither in America's interest to "lose" Turkey, nor in Turkey's interest to "lose" the United States. But the dynamics that currently dominate this historic relationship are leading in this direction.

Rajan Menon is an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute and the Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University. S. Enders Wimbush is Director of Hudson Institute's Center for Future Security Strategies. They recently published a Hudson Institute monograph entitled, "Is the U.S. Losing Turkey?"

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