Turkey — America’s Special Frenemy

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.”

President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, image in public domain

President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, image in public domain

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.

Overflights and Posturing: U2 Incident and the Cold War Dance

Today, we are delighted to once again welcome author and engineer Nigel Blackwell, student of history and fan of all things that move. His intelligent, thoroughly researched blogs cover everything from futuristic cars to the history of supersonic flight. So when Nigel offered to help us out with a few guest blogs while we are both away, Holmes and I could not have been more honored.

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Overflights and Posturing: U2 Incident and the Cold War Dance

By NIGEL BLACKWELL

In December 1959, the USA, Britain, and France simultaneously proposed to Nikita Khrushchev, the Chairman of the USSR, a meeting to “consider international questions of mutual concern.” Khrushchev agreed, and a summit was arranged for May 16, 1960 in Paris.

Among the topics “of mutual concern” was the Berlin situation, where the USSR was furious that its citizens were escaping to the west, and a Test Ban Treaty, which would have slowed nuclear weapons development and perhaps prevented further proliferation.

Eisenhower, leery the USSR would under- or over-exaggerate its weapon stockpiles in any negotiations, approved the use of the U-2 spy plane to obtain photographic evidence of Soviet nuclear capabilities. The U-2 was born in the Cold War and designed to carry cameras at 70,000 ft., a height where the US believed its pilot would be safe from the enemy fighters and missiles of the day.

So, on April 9, 1960, Bob Ericson flew a U-2 from northern Pakistan across the southern half of the USSR, and landed in Iran. The Soviet Air Defense Force made several attempts to intercept him, but they were unable to reach his altitude. The photographs were valuable, and the CIA declared the mission a success. A second mission was planned.

On May 1, 1960, a second CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, departed from the same northern Pakistan base with a planned zigzag route north, overflying ICBM sites and plutonium production facilities, and landing at Bodo, Norway. Obviously, the route was planned to avoid known SAM sites since altitude was the U-2’s only means of defense.

After Ericson’s flight, the Soviet Air Defense Forces had been on red alert and scrambled to intercept Powers with an array of aircraft and ground launched missiles. Some 1200 miles inside the USSR, near Yekateringburg, they did.

At the time the US only knew that Powers had appeared to descend rapidly from 65,000 ft. to around 34,000 ft. and disappeared from their radar.

The USSR, on the other hand, knew that the aircraft had been brought down and the pilot picked up by a group of puzzled locals, disarmed and driven to the authorities.

In Powers’s book, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, he relays that he didn’t even have a cover story planned, and as he was captured by a car load of locals, he realized practically everything he carried was carefully labeled “made in the USA.” He even carried a US flag.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that a US plane had crashed within the USSR, and the US immediately generated a cover story.

NASA announced that it had lost a weather plane when its pilot reported he was having oxygen problems. They even painted a U-2 in NASA colors and distributed leaflets describing the “weather aircraft” to prove it was operating the U-2. Statements were issued to the effect that “there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been.”

Unfortunately, Nikita Khrushchev had a public relations ace up his sleeve when, a week later, he reported the following:

“I must tell you a secret. When I made my first report, I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well … and now just look how many silly things they (the Americans) have said.”

In the remaining week before the Paris Summit, Khrushchev kept public pressure on the US by staging the presentation of Gary Powers and the wreckage of the U-2.

The US back pedaled on the NASA weather aircraft story, juggled to defuse the situation, and tried to establish access to Powers, all while preparing for the Four Powers summit in Paris.

The USSR was expected to use the U-2 incident to their advantage at the meeting, but no one knew how. Anticipation grew when Khrushchev arrived two days prior to the meeting.

But when Eisenhower arrived the following day, Khrushchev ignored him and visited French president, Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Macmillan. Khrushchev would later claim this was because Eisenhower hadn’t indicated an interest in meeting, but neither de Gaulle nor Macmillan had done so either.

In his own meeting with de Gaulle, Khrushchev handed over a document outlining the USSR’s displeasure over the U-2 incident, along with three specific conditions for his participation in the Paris Summit, namely that Eisenhower should:

1) Condemn the USAF’s provocative act (which must have made someone in the CIA smile, because it was a CIA operation).

2) Guarantee that the US would refrain from such acts in the future.

3) Punish the individuals responsible for the U-2 operation.

Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and Macmillan knew that should the contents of Khrushchev document be leaked to the public, he would have no way to back down without losing face. In fact, by presenting his demands to the British and French, it may have been Khrushchev’s intention that they were leaked to the press.

Either way, at the opening of the summit, where the four powers were to discuss the agenda items for the meeting proper, Khrushchev made public his demands. Eisenhower stated that overflights had been suspended and would not be resumed, but on the other points he was silent.

Khrushchev postured and berated the US for some time and eventually ended by withdrawing a long-standing invitation for Eisenhower to visit the USSR. It was a public slap in the face for Eisenhower.

The meeting collapsed at this point. Khrushchev departed Paris. The Test Ban Treaty was stalled for a further three years, and even then it was very limited in scope. The situation in Berlin persisted until the Soviets constructed the Berlin Wall (which symbolized their failure just as much as the flow of the citizens through Berlin).

The Soviets played the part of the grievously wounded for all they could and sentenced Powers to ten years in prison, only to release him within two years in exchange for a Soviet spy caught in the US. The USSR did no posturing then; perhaps they found it hard to justify the difference between a spy at 70,000 ft. and one on the ground.

The failure of the summit disappointed many around the world. Some say that Eisenhower could have handled the situation better, or that the US should not have put so much at risk with the overflights. Or that Khrushchev had already decided to walk away from the conference, and the downing of Gary Powers gave him the perfect excuse.

What do you think?

Cheers

Nigel Blackwell