U.S. officials had scrambled to keep two allies from airing their growing differences in public — again.
Hours before an annual joint military exercise was to begin in June 2009, Turkey booted Israel from the event. But American diplomats persuaded Turkey to paper over the differences, mainly involving Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip several months earlier, and officially describe Israel’s absence as a mere delay.
“Through some remarkable work with allies … we engineered a public ‘postponement’ of the international portion of the exercise,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, reported. “But, the relationship is souring,” it said of ties between Turkey, the only Muslim nation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and longtime U.S. ally Israel.
The embassy’s secret account was among the trove of documents about America’s complicated relationship with an increasingly independent and ambitious Turkey that were released this week by the website WikiLeaks.
The documents underscore the importance of Turkey, a moderate Islamic country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria. The documents show that U.S. officials use Turkey as a base to gather intelligence on Iran and value the massive U.S. airbase at Incirlik as a location to ferry supplies to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reports span much of the period since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power, and show that U.S. diplomats cheered the new government as it instituted democratic reforms.
But they also show how Americans grew frustrated and even angry over a foreign policy out of sync with the U.S. vision.
U.S. officials often blamed Erdogan, and said they were seeking to sway deputies they considered more moderate into adopting positions closer to those of the U.S., especially regarding Iran and Israel.
“Our conversations with contacts both inside and outside of the Turkish government … tend to confirm [Israeli Ambassador Gabby] Levy’s thesis that Erdogan simply hates Israel,” a confidential Oct. 27, 2009, cable said.
The documents suggest American diplomats were initially impressed by Erdogan’s political skills. One confidential memo in January 2004 before the prime minister visited Washington described him as a “natural politician,” “pragmatic,” “charismatic and possessing a common touch.”
A 2008 confidential cable alluded to his “street-fighter instincts.”
He was also blessed with a weak opposition. One December 2004 memo described his main opponents as “no more than a bunch of elite ankle-biters.”
But there was also concern about his “overbearing pride” and boundless ambition. “Erdogan has traits that make him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs,” the January 2004 cable said.
Signs of strain over foreign policy began to show in 2006, when Turkish diplomats met with Hamas officials and Erdogan met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The prime minister also condemned Israel during its war that summer with the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah.
Still, U.S. officials appeared to support Erdogan — or at least remained neutral as he took on secular military and judiciary officials who for decades had stifled Turkey’s democratic progress. A confidential April 2008 cable said attempts by the judiciary to outlaw his party could be interpreted as a “judicial coup” by an unelected and “unaccountable bureaucracy.”
But apprehensions mushroomed as Turkey tried to use its strong ties with Iran to mediate a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Erdogan’s recent comments on Iran’s nuclear program amount to a defense of Tehran’s defiance of the international community’s will,” said a November 2009 cable. The cables also show U.S. concern about Turkish firms selling weapons to Iran, including ammunition for automatic weapons and grenade launchers.
Senior U.S. diplomats unsuccessfully lobbied Turkish officials to change the country’s stance on Iran. In one meeting, a Turkish diplomat said there were concerns about the Islamic Republic — even in Syria, a close ally of Iran.
“Alarm bells are ringing even in Damascus,” a document quoted the diplomat as saying.
By early this year, the diplomatic correspondence reflected a recognition that a democratic Turkey would not necessarily be close to the U.S. on key international issues, at least with the “current cast” of leaders. This was months before Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish civilians in a confrontation aboard an aid vessel bound for Gaza, an incident that further soured ties between Israel and Turkey.
“At the end of the day we will have to live with a Turkey whose population is propelling much of what we see,” said a confidential January cable. “This calls for a more issue-by-issue approach, and recognition that Turkey will often go its own way.”