The coming collapse of US-Turkey relations

Article Highlights

  • Beneath the rhetorical embrace, the foundation of the U.S.-Turkish partnership is in danger.

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  • Recent disputes have eroded trust and broken relationships.

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  • Questions regarding media freedom have returned Turkey’s “Midnight Express” reputation in Washington.

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On the sidelines of the Foreign Ministry’s recent Ambassador’s Conference in Izmir, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, told Today’s Zaman that relations between the two countries has never been better. Such descriptions of bilateral ties have been a staple of diplomatic talk for years. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in April 2010, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called bilateral ties a “modeled partnership…not an ordinary strategic partnership, something special.” American officials also praise Turkey effusively. “Turkey is a vital and strategic partner of the United States,” Condoleezza Rice declared on April 15, 2008. Paul Wolfowitz often spoke of an “indispensable partnership” between Washington and Ankara. Not only John Kerry, but also Condoleezza Rice and James Baker visited Turkey during their first trips abroad as secretary of state. Hillary Clinton did not, but she made it to Turkey on her second foreign trip. President Barack Obama himself has identified Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of the few foreign leaders with whom he has developed “friendships and the bonds of trust.” 

Tan may be right about the close ties between the White House and the Başbakanlık Konutu, but officials in Ankara should not kid themselves: Beneath the rhetorical embrace, the foundation of the U.S.-Turkish partnership is in danger. True, the leadership may never have been closer but, increasingly, it is only the friendship between Obama and Erdoğan which is masking more serious tension.

The past decade has witnessed no shortage of disputes between Ankara and Washington. Turkey and the United States disagreed with regard to the Iraq war and continue to differ on policy toward both Baghdad and Erbil. Whereas Turkey, the United States, and Israel once cooperated closely, the schism between Ankara and Jerusalem remains an American concern. Nor are the United States and Turkey unified with regard to the Palestinians. While the State Department supports the Palestinian Authority, Turkish authorities appear to favor Hamas. Declarations of solidarity against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) aside, the gap between the two countries’ approach to terrorism has also never been so wide. The issue is not simply disputes with regard to Hamas, but also the Nusra Front and also Al Qaeda, if donations from Cuneyt Zapsu to Yasin al-Qadi and comments by Ambassador Ahmet Kavas with regard to Al Qaeda reflect Turkish policy.

Certainly, maintaining a special partnership should never mean absolute solidarity. Both Turkey and the United States are independent countries with their own unique interests. But recent disputes have eroded trust and broken relationships. Questions regarding media freedom and the independence of the judiciary have returned Turkey’s “Midnight Express” reputation in Washington. Turkish diplomats may explain Egemen Bağış’s litigiousness toward critics not only in Turkey but also in the United States as a personal predilection rather than state policy, but such nuance is wishful thinking for the subjects of his suits. The tension that arose from the Grand National Assembly’s 2003 decision not to allow U.S. forces to transit Turkey as they entered Iraq will continue to erode relations on a staff level as the planners and men impacted by that decision rise through the ranks of the Pentagon with a bitter taste in their mouth regarding Turkey.

Such attitudes are corrosive. Tan once seized upon membership in the Congressional Caucus on Turkey and Turkish Americans as a means to measure bilateral relations. He no longer brags about such figures. Elections and attrition always take their toll, but the decline of Caucus membership from over 155 to just 122 suggests something is afoot. At Congressional hearings, some Caucus members dismissed other concerns regarding Turkey’s positions by citing Turkey’s participation in the International Security Assistance Force. But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan ends, such cooperation will no longer be enough to divert attention from other problems.

The United States and Turkey have long been diplomatic partners, and they will continue to be allies.   As Turkey pushes forward with a new constitution, Erdoğan may find himself in charge for years to come, but Obama’s days are numbered. Whether the next president is a Democrat or Republican, they will likely not share the personal relationship that Obama maintains with Erdoğan, all the more so since the same crude outbursts which make Erdoğan popular with his Anatolian constituency drive the wedge between Turkey and the United States deeper. There may not be a single crisis which breaks the Turkish-American relationship, but in January 2017, a multitude of crises deferred may lead to a reappraisal of relations which will belie the notion that the partnership between Washington and Ankara is special, let alone warm.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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