The root causes of Turkish anti-Americanism

It has recently become a truism to talk about a golden age in Turkish-American relations. »»

It has recently become a truism to talk about a golden age in Turkish-American relations. Politicians from both countries speak proudly of common interests and shared values. But beyond the tired cliché of a “strategic partnership,” there is actually substance to the golden age argument in Turkish-American relations.

Only two years ago the two allies were at loggerheads over how to deal with Iran. Turkey was in favor of economic and diplomatic engagement, while Washington insisted on isolating and punishing the Islamic regime in Tehran. Tensions between Ankara and Washington peaked after Turkey and Brazil brokered a deal with Tehran. The Obama administration reacted negatively, and things went from bad to worse after Turkey voted against a new round of economic and financial sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Around the same time came the Mavi Marmara incident, which further exacerbated dynamics between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Obama administration.

What a difference a couple of years make. Look at where we are now. A few days ago, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius published a much-cited piece in the Turkish press titled: “Obama’s friend in Turkey.” Ignatius, who witnessed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s short temper first-hand at Davos when he denied him the chance to respond to Shimon Peres, points out: “Obama and Erdoğan continued their courtship despite a sharp deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Israel after the Gaza war and despite US worries in early 2010 that Ankara was becoming too friendly with Iran. Obama expressed his concerns in a blunt two-hour conversation at the June 2010 Group of 20 summit in Toronto. Since then, according to both sides, there has been growing mutual trust.”

I have also heard from other sources that the Toronto meeting was indeed a turning point, particularly in terms of Erdoğan’s recognition of Obama’s personal disappointment. But it really took more concrete events to turn around the troubled Turkish-American relationship. These came in the form of the Arab revolutions, which soon led to the hailing of Turkey as a model for emerging Muslim democracies, and the subsequent deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Iran and Syria. Equally important was Turkey’s decision to host radars for the NATO missile defense system. Both the Arab awakening and the NATO radar decision confirmed Turkey’s place as a staunch ally firmly anchored in the Western democratic bloc. All this helps us understand the solid ground for the golden age we are now talking about. Yet there is a major paradox in the “happy ending” of this story: the unchanging anti-Americanism of Turkish public opinion.

It is indeed puzzling that Turkish anti-Americanism seems to be a quasi-permanent phenomenon. In most European countries it was the Bush administration that fueled resentment against America, and the ascension of Barack Obama to power quickly changed opinions about Washington. Not so in Turkey. The positive effect of Obama’s presidency was very short-lived in Turkey, where anti-Americanism remains at record high levels. Even today, as we speak of a golden age in Turkish-American relations, Turkish public opinion is very skeptical of American intentions in the Middle East and in Turkey. If you ask the average Turk, there seems to be an American plot behind almost everything, from the Arab revolutions to tsunamis in Japan or Indonesia.

Yet it has always been my contention that there is something more structural and fundamental in Turkish anti-Americanism than just a kneejerk reaction to American foreign policy. In many ways, it is Turkey’s identity problems that fuel anti-Americanism. The two obvious Turkish identity problems are the Kurdish question and the issue of political Islam. You can call them the two main problems of the Kemalist Republic. Since its foundation the Turkish Republic has been dealing with the Kurdish question and the difficult balance between secularism and Islam. Surprisingly, America is very relevant to both. If you have a five-minute conversation in a Turkish coffee shop with average customers you will get an earful about how America is responsible for nurturing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and harboring plans to create an independent Kurdistan. Similarly, most secular Turks blame America for promoting “moderate Islam” in Turkey and using the AKP to erode Kemalist secularism. Pious Turks are equally angry with the US because of its anti-Muslim policies and support for military coups.

In other words, when Turks talk about their two most polarizing political topics they end up blaming the US. Simply put, there is nothing Obama or any other US president can do to change this situation.