Symposium | After Iraq: A Symposium

Tend to Turkey

By Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall

Tagged DiplomacyInternational RelationsTurkey

In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the United States will occupy a position of greatly diminished stature and leverage among the many allies that stepped forward to offer unqualified support immediately after September 11, 2001. No relationship has been more badly damaged in this relatively short period of time, or is in greater need of repair, than the alliance between the United States and Turkey. Although America’s standing has declined precipitously across Europe, Turkey is the one NATO country at risk of becoming strategically unmoored.

The war has had a profound and disorienting effect on Turkey–the
only Muslim nation anchored in the West through bilateral ties with the
United States and membership in NATO. In some polls, Turks are reported
to have the least favorable public opinion of the United States among
countries surveyed. The Bush Administration’s actions have ominously
alienated a generation of young people unfamiliar with the positive
legacy of American global leadership. Across the population, a slow
process of disenchantment and disengagement has taken place. If this
negative trajectory is not reversed, Turkey could seek alternative
affiliations–most likely with its Islamic neighbors or with Russia–at
the expense of its connections to the United States and Europe.

How could such a dramatic rupture with Turkey have occurred? In
short, American policymakers ignored or misread Turkish politics,
disregarded legitimate Turkish concerns, and launched an invasion of
nearby Iraq with substantial negative consequences for Turkish
interests. In preparing to go to war, the United States aggressively
sought Turkish permission for the Fourth Infantry Division to cross
Turkey in order to enter Iraq from the north. The pressure Washington
put on Ankara–and the perception in some Turkish circles that the
United States sought to bribe the country to secure its
agreement–redounded negatively in the domestic debate, resulting in the
Turkish Grand National Assembly’s failure on March 1, 2003 to approve a
resolution permitting U.S. troop transit into Iraq. In reaction, the
Pentagon severely curtailed contacts with the Turkish military,
essentially freezing it out of the action precisely at the moment that
its leaders felt Turkey’s vital interests were being imperiled. On the
policy side, high-level visits were postponed or canceled, and regular
consultations between the Department of Defense and the Turkish
military’s General Staff were suspended. Further, Turkish offers to
send troops to Iraq were repeatedly rebuffed, reinforcing the
impression that Turkey was being excluded from shaping events that
would have serious implications for its security. At the time of the
invasion of Iraq and overthrow of SaddamHussein, the Americans rejected
a proposed Turkish deployment of 20,000 troops in the north on the
grounds that it could lead to conflict between Turks and Kurds; later
in 2003, when the U.S. sought support for peacekeeping and
reconstruction, Turkey’s proposal to send 10,000 soldiers was rejected
by Iraq’s Governing Council.

In Turkish eyes, the American war effort has substantially
destabilized their neighborhood and severely exacerbated their most
important security challenge: the continuing terrorist violence
perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). An unintended
consequence of U.S. policy since the first Gulf War has been the
emergence of a safe haven for the PKK in northern Iraq. This territory,
largely controlled by Iraqi Kurds, has been the only relatively stable
region of the country. As a result, American policymakers have resisted
appeals to expand the U.S. presence there, concentrating forces on more
volatile areas. Concomitantly, the Kurdish leadership of northern Iraq
has failed to use its influence to effectively rein in PKK violence.

Finally, a separate but profoundly exacerbating factor in Turkish
domestic opinion has been the reaction to the protracted process of
negotiating accession to the European Union. As prominent European
leaders–including the recently elected French President Nicolas
Sarkozy–make xenophobic statements about how Turkey does not belong in
Europe, Turkish popular feelings of alienation from the West are being
stoked and nationalist and/or Islamist alternatives are becoming more
attractive. Unfortunately, because the Bush Administration has
squandered American credibility with it allies, Washington’s ability to
influence European thinking and decision-making on this matter is at an
all-time low. Looking to the future, the EU members’ failure to
effectively respond to Turkey’s desire for inclusion may result in an
irreparable breach with the Muslim world at a time when many European
states face significant internal problems with integrating their own
Muslim populations. The schism that could result from excluding the
leading example of a Western-oriented, secular democracy from the
European club will only reinforce those who believe that co-existence
between Western and Muslim civilization is impossible.

All plausible scenarios for Iraq’s future are viewed with suspicion
by Ankara, particularly the growing prospect of an independent
Kurdistan. The Turkish military views Kurdish statehood as an
existential threat to Turkey’s security. Sudden Kurdish autonomy could
trigger a war pitting the Kurdish peshmerga–which have strong
ties to the United States–against the Turkish army, to whom the United
States and its NATO partners have Article V mutual-defense obligations.
Although there is legitimate concern about instability on Iraq’s other
porous borders, particularly the one it shares with Iran, American
policymakers should not allow these preoccupations to distract them
from the explosive potential of the Iraqi-Turkish frontier.

As the United States seeks to disentangle itself from Iraq, it needs
to do all that it can to avoid a worst-case scenario between Turkey and
the Kurds. It should work intensively with the Turks and legitimate
representatives of the Kurds of northern Iraq to develop solutions to
complex problems in which each has a stake. Some efforts have been
made: Over the past two years, the United States has tried to establish
a “trilateral” mechanism bringing Americans, Turks, and Kurds together,
but this has been difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons,
including Turkish reluctance to give greater legitimacy to Kurds
representing the governing structures of the north. The United States
needs to impress upon its Turkish allies and its Kurdish friends how
important this process is to avoiding escalation and to building a more
secure future for the region. In the near term, these discussions
should focus on reducing tensions and severely constraining PKK
activities; in the longer term, they should address trade, transit, and
other means of promoting prosperity on both sides of the border.

In response to the deteriorating relationship between Washington and
Ankara, the Administration appointed former Vice Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff Joseph W. Ralston to spearhead an effort to counter the
PKK in August 2006. Ralston has labored behind the scenes to rebuild
channels of communication between the American and Turkish militaries
that were severed in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, and he has
been instrumental in advancing a number of important bilateral
initiatives. His work should be sustained and reinforced. It should
also be mirrored by parallel U.S.-Turkish efforts to reweave the fabric
of the relationship diplomatically, economically, culturally, and

At the same time, the United States should actively encourage
commerce between Turkey and the Kurdish north. There is already a new
reality on the ground: The Turkish private sector, investing heavily in
the Kurdish areas of Iraq, has a stake in the success of the northern
region. In Turkey, some enlightened observers are also calling for a
reappraisal of Turkish interests vis-à-vis the future of Iraqi
Kurdistan, advocating a leading role for Turkey in building a stable
northern Iraq through greater trade and investment. They also support
expanded efforts to promote education and development in the Kurdish
areas of southern Turkey.

Less optimistically, NATO needs to do contingency planning for a
scenario in which PKK violence escalates and Turkey invokes Article V.
A failure to respond to an ally’s call for help has the potential to
further corrode allied confidence in the American security commitment.
This could stimulate actions that would be directly contradictory to
American national security goals for the region and beyond.

There is another security dynamic to consider: Experts focused on
diminishing the threat of nuclear proliferation are debating whether
the United States should withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe.
While in the future this may be plausible if fully supported by all
NATO members, this is not the time to raise further questions about
America’s commitment to extended deterrence or the reliability of the
security guarantees that undergird its alliances and provide
reassurance. Otherwise, countries like Turkey may seek to develop their
own nuclear programs, which will not only set back nonproliferation
goals but could stimulate others to follow suit.

The challenges facing the United States in leading and managing its
relationship with Turkey are both common and unique. They are common in
the sense that negative attitudes toward American policy are prevalent
in many countries that have been U.S. allies since the end of World War
II. What makes Turkey unique–and uniquely important to American
interests–is its heretofore successful blending of many elements that
coexist uncomfortably or not at all in many parts of the world today.
Turkey is secular, it is Muslim; it is Western-oriented but also deeply
connected to the Islamic world. It is committed to democracy and
economic reform, all the more so under the current leadership of an
openly religious party. Turkey’s success in managing these competing
and sometimes conflicting influences is crucial to bridging the growing
chasm between the West and the Islamic world. Its success in doing so
must therefore be a high American strategic priority as well.

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Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is the Adjunct Senior Fellow for Alliance Relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, a senior research scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, and a senior adviser to the Stanford-Harvard Preventive Defense Project.

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