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November 17, 2011, Thursday

Old world paranoia

Turkish nationalists claim Turkey has become a subcontractor of the US in the Middle East under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government. Conversely, conservative American nationalists assert that Turkey led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not even deserve to be a NATO partner anymore.

The truth lies somewhere in between those extremes. Obviously Turkey has made a new alliance with the US based on mutual interests, values and visions after the Arab Spring. But unlike the days of the Cold War, Ankara is a more equal partner with a freer hand now. That’s why Turkey cannot be regarded as a subcontractor of the US, and some Americans, who yearn for the days of ultimate US supremacy, seem a little distressed.

Michael Rubin’s October article in the National Review represents the “distressed American” position well, which fortunately is not the mainstream in today’s Washington. For people like Rubin, Erdoğan is the mother of all evils and under him Turkey cannot be a trustworthy ally. Many facts on the ground may prove the opposite, but that perception is popular especially among some circles with an Israel-centric view of the Middle East. Such viewers have long considered Turkey successful and a good fit for the US as long as it is on good terms with Israel. Hence, many sins of the Kemalist old elite were overlooked. Foreign policy experts thought US-Turkish relations could thrive provided that Turkey kept close to Israel. Similar to many other theories of the old world, this is no longer the case.

Tom Friedman of The New York Times put it well, speaking at the CSIS-Schieffer Dialogue Series in Washington this week when he said the US and Turkey are “doomed” to be friends for the foreseeable future. He commended the Obama administration for keeping US-Israeli relations and US-Turkish relations on “separate tracks.” Certainly, American national interests dictate that Turkey and Israel work together. But it would not have been in the best interests of the US to downgrade its crucial relationship with Turkey because of the recent tensions with Israel. The main challenge for the US (and Israel) is to make sure Iran does not fill the power vacuums created by the Arab awakening. Turkey has many items in its toolbox to counterbalance the Iranian influence. Ankara’s decision to host a NATO missile defense radar was hardware from the box. Turkey’s increased popularity in the Arab street is a soft asset. Emotional supporters of Israel may now be angry, but I’m sure even they will appreciate Turkey’s role in due course.

It’s obvious and natural that the US and Turkey are getting more aligned in the changing Middle East. The US needs a powerful, influential and stable Muslim ally when other friendly regimes are shaken one by one by popular uprisings. After Egypt, who knows if Jordan or even Saudi Arabia may not follow? Despite its imperfections, there is no better example of democracy emanating from a predominantly Muslim nation other than Turkey. When the US focus is gradually shifting towards Asia Pacific and American credibility is at its worst in the Middle East, Turkey provides Washington cost-effective ways of exerting indirect influence. Most American priorities and concerns are also shared by Turks; therefore, they don’t feel subordinated when they cooperate with the US in pursuing these priorities. To me, this looks more like a mutually beneficial contract among partners than a de facto subcontract.

While the US and Turkey are combining brains and power to have a better say in the renewing Middle East, they will continue to be challenged by some old habits. Among them, cynicism of Turks and Americans who still see things from the old world perspective come to the forefront. Cynical Turks will question Ankara’s every collaborative action with the US with paranoia left over from the Cold War days. Similarly, cynical Americans will not be completely happy due to nostalgia of the days where the US overwhelmingly dominated the bilateral relations with relatively less concern for Turkish interests. Currently, American cynicism is confined to a smaller group and does not find much media access in the US. However, the situation might change for the worse if American self-confidence continues to erode. Conditions for spread of Turkish cynicism about the US’s intentions may be riper because the American connection still dominates public discussion of foreign policy in the country. The antidote in the long run could be Turkey’s increasing confidence and comfort, which I hope might alter the extremely conspiratorial elite and public attitudes.

Given its geostrategic location, historical capital, democratic example, rich human resources and vibrant economy, the US will have to collaborate with Turkey for the foreseeable future despite possible bumps on the road. Turkey, on the other hand, cannot secure a sustainable position as a regional leader without direct and indirect support from a global power. Who else other than the US could do that for Turkey? China? Or Russia? I doubt it. Why risk it all anyway, when there is a safer and familiar option with the West?

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