By Jay Holmes
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Turkey has momentarily brought US-Turkish relations to the forefront of US foreign affairs news. Days before Kerry’s visit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned up the tension in US-Turkish relations by announcing that Zionism is a “crime against humanity.”
Many folks in the West had to wonder precisely how much of a “friend” US President Obama’s “special friend” Erdogan is and precisely who Erdogan’s friends might be. I didn’t include Israel in the list of those who wondered about Erdogan. Most Israelis long ago gave up wondering and decided they could always count on Erdogan to play that easy Anti-Israel card whenever it suited him. He has never disappointed them on that score.
The day before Kerry’s arrival, the Turkish government arrested yet another eleven journalists for daring to question the Erdogan regime. As near as I can tell, Turkey now has more journalists in prison than Communist China does. Of course, that’s a tricky comparison because China enjoys an advantage in dealing with journalist prison populations. China executes them. To their credit, the Turks generally avoid executing imprisoned journalists so they’re bound to accumulate a higher total of jailed journalists as long as they continue to suppress free speech.
Kerry issued a carefully muted disapproval of Erdogan’s words. I can’t fault Kerry for not speaking out more directly because he was in the middle of a diplomatic mission to Turkey—a NATO ally—and he was carrying a sizeable agenda of urgent issues. Beyond that, it’s not Kerry’s job to act on his own opinions. It’s his job to execute whatever foreign policy the US president dictates. Given that Obama has spent the last four years cultivating a “special close friendship” with Erdogan, and given the number of urgent issues shared by the US and Turkey, Obama is not likely to cut his losses with Erdogan too quickly.
In spite of the professional opinions of State Department employees and the US Ambassador to Turkey, President Obama was certain that, with a little influence from the US and the West, he could count on Erdogan to act as a moderate Islamic Democratic leader. The President has consistently held up Turkey as a leader of reform in the Middle East.
Given the turmoil in the Middle East, our addiction to petroleum, and the previous half a century of fairly good relations with Turkey, it’s understandable that the Obama crew might engage in a bit of wild optimism in dealing with Turkey. The White House publicly defined Turkey as a natural economic, ideological, and political gateway between the West and the Middle East. A country that’s supposed to be like leaving East L.A. via Disneyland and finding yourself on a quiet beach in Malibu without any drive-by shootings along the way.
That history of cooperation between the US and Turkey has to be placed in the context of the Cold War. Although Turkey tried to establish a close working relationship with the USSR after World War One, it quickly realized that it was on Stalin’s lunch menu and started looking to the West for friends. By the end of World War Two, the US and Turkey were working overtime to build a strong friendship based on Turkish geography and US cash.
The history of US-Turkish relations since World War Two is a complex one, filled with constant friction and held together by the overriding concern about Soviet aggression. That glue of Soviet aggression is no longer present, and like a passionate young couple, common ground and mutual understanding must be defined for the US and Turkey for the relationship to attain any lasting mutual benefit. The Obama administration sees common ground, but does Turkey see the same thing?
Both the US and Turkey openly agree that Turkey can be that peaceful gateway between the West and the Middle East. Turkey maintains diplomatic and economic ties to Iran and has consistently, and apparently faithfully, done a good job of acting as a diplomatic conduit for Iran and the US. Given that Turkey and its growing economy purchase oil from Iran, it’s no small matter for them to take on that role as a diplomatic third between Iran and the US. Erdogan sees himself as a top tier world leader, and his diplomatic position between Iran and the US gives him credibility both in the Mid-east and the West.
Many analysts point to the current civil war in Syria as a turning point in US-Turkish relations. It’s certainly an important event. In fact, if you live next door to Syria, as the Turks do, and artillery rounds and rockets are finding their way to your side of the border, which they are, then it’s critically important and urgently requires a solution.
More realistically, the strain in US-Turkish relations is at least in part caused by long standing issues. The first sticking point revolves around the fact that about one and a half million Armenians live in the US, and they remember the genocide carried out against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire after World War One. Please don’t hate Armenians just because of those silly Kardashian people. Most Americans of Armenian descent are lovely folks. They and the other millions of Armenian diaspora around the world want Turkey to admit that the genocide occurred. It’s quite clear to everyone except successive Turkish governments that it did occur. That has caused friction between the US and Turkish governments.
Another long-standing conflict between Turkey and the US has been Israel. While Turkey has not generally counted itself among the “death to the Jews” Middle Eastern crowd, it has been sympathetic toward Palestinians and cozy with Hamas. At the same time, the US categorizes Hamas as a terrorist group. Given that Hamas has spent most of its cash and effort over time on terrorist activities, the US is not likely to change its stance.
Then, there are those other, not so well-treated folks who call themselves Kurds. I happen to like the Kurdish people but in international terms, I’m in a minority. Some adventurous Americans, as well as a few nosey Brits, had very cordial dealings with the Kurds back when a nasty old creep by the name of Saddam Hussein was running Iraq.
Parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran were the Kurdish homeland for a period. The Kurds want those parts back. Turkey, Iran, and Syria have no intention of giving that land back any more than the US, Canada, or any other New World nation intends to return this half of the globe to the Native Americans. Note to Argentine President Kirchner: If the Brits gift you the Falklands, you’ll have to find some Native Americans to give it to.
During the Iraq War and the early stages of the subsequent “rebuilding” of Iraq, the vast differences in the US and Turkish view of the Kurds appeared to be a long term problem in US-Turkish relations. Most observers assumed that the PKK attacks on Turkish soil, which the PKK considers to be their rightful home, would remain the defining issue for Turkey in its policies toward Iraq. Problems are not always what they seem to be on the surface. As it turned out, there was a deeper underlying issue that would eventually shape a new Turkish outlook on Iraq. In our next article, we will examine that issue and the other emerging issues that have intervened in the simple view of US-Turkish relations that the present and recent US administrations have tried to implement.