Who lost Turkey? That’s the theme of a rash of articles in the U.S. press over the last two months. Apparently, there’s a growing consensus in Washington that our old ally has been gradually becoming more anti-American.
In 2003, Turkey denied Washington the use of Turkish bases only months before the war on Iraq began. Just recently, Vice President Dick Cheney blamed Turkey’s noncooperation for many of the problems today with Iraqi insurgents.
A number of critics have pointed to the rise of anti-American public sentiment in Turkey over the last two years: The Marshall Fund found that 82% of the Turkish public was hostile to the U.S., one of the highest figures anywhere, especially for a NATO ally. A recent bestselling Turkish fictional thriller, “Metal Storm,” portrays a U.S. war against Turkey. The Islam-oriented government in Ankara has harshly criticized close U.S. ally Israel for its occupation policies in the West Bank. And Turkey does not concur with Washington’s efforts to pressure Iran and Syria.
Although these events indeed represent a new Turkish reality, it would be erroneous -- indeed dangerous -- to assume that Turkey’s widespread opposition to many of the Bush administration’s policies are symptomatic of a broader strategic hostility. And it would be exceptionally shortsighted for U.S. policymakers to argue that the democratically elected moderate Islamist government in Turkey is not sufficiently pro-American or that it should be pressured to change its leadership.
In reality, U.S. interests -- in the broader scheme of things -- have been exceptionally well-served by this Turkish government, which has brought broad democratic reforms to the country as part of its explicit commitment to gain European Union membership. Turkey has taken positive steps toward relieving Kurdish dissatisfaction and has moved to improve relations with all of its neighbors, including longtime opponent Armenia. The economy is moving forward, and inflation is way down.
The Turkish public, including those with no special desire for Islamist policies, find the performance of this government to be generally on the right track; politics have been more stable than any other time in the last decade. Most interesting, several of Turkey’s Arab neighbors are paying attention to its experience in producing a competent Islam-oriented government -- one that can be proudly independent yet democratic, reformist and a candidate for EU membership. Nothing could be a more positive model for the rest of the region.
It is true that since the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s reliance on U.S. leadership in foreign policy has declined sharply -- as it has in most of the rest of the world, including Western Europe. Ankara is no longer automatically acquiescent to following the U.S. lead, especially when it believes that U.S. policies run counter to Turkish national interests. U.S. policy in Iraq, Iran and Syria is seen by Turkey as adventuristic and needlessly destabilizing to Turkish interests.
Right now, opposition to U.S. policies is the nearest thing to a national consensus in Turkey. Major elements across the political spectrum -- Turkey’s strong secularists, nationalists, Kemalists and leftists -- are even more harshly critical of Washington than the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Efforts by Washington to intimidate a popular, representative Turkish government or to bring it in line with U.S. government policies will almost surely backfire. In the new world order, unilateralism has its limits. Turkey is not lost to us; we just need to take a more realistic view of the limits of our own power, be sensitive to the risks of ignoring other states’ nationalist feelings and interests, and adopt a longer-term, more enlightened view of our own interests. Turkey is doing fine.
Graham E. Fuller is a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His latest book is “The Future of Political Islam” (Palgrave 2003).