Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey Being Turkey

by Steven A. Cook
October 27, 2010

I am back from Turkey. Great trip except for the exceedingly large man sitting next to me on the flight from Istanbul to London. That was uncomfortable.

Last June, I wrote about the divergence of American and Turkish foreign policies. This trip (my first since May) only re-affirmed my conclusions from the now (in)famous “Frenemy” piece. Washington and Ankara are moving away from a strategic partnership to a transactional relationship. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to Iran. The Turks have a vastly different perception of the Iranian threat from the United States (and Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and most of the Gulf states); and while Ankara is clear that it does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, Turkish engagement with Iran continues apace. Last week the Treasury’s point man on Iran sanctions, Stuart Levey, did not get very far convincing the Turks to go further than the largely symbolic UN sanctions, which Ankara voted against.

The next big issue on the U.S.-Turkey agenda is a proposed NATO missile defense system, that if it is developed, will have a radar component based on Turkish soil. The Turks are deeply uneasy about these plans, which will likely make for some turbulence in the run up to the NATO meeting in Lisbon on November 19-20. At the moment, the Turks have two demands. They do not want any country (i.e. Iran) to be identified as the “target” of the system and they do not want any non-NATO countries to have access to the intelligence used for the missile defense system. (Can you spell I-S-R-A-E-L?) Some Turks argue, unconvingcingly, that in the event of an Israeli or American strike on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey, by dint of hosting the radar site, would be a target of retaliation. More persuasively, they fear that a military attack on Iran will destabilize the region. They saw this happen in Iraq, and they would like to avoid it in Iran. Ankara is also worried that sanctions and/or a military strike will disrupt Turkey’s plans to upgrade its trade relations with Iran, which the Justice and Development Party hopes will reach $30 billion in the next 5 years.

I have heard a lot of this before, but what seems different this time is the sense that Turkey is calculating the costs of its alliance with the West. It used to be issues like missile defense were hard, but because aligning with NATO was an identity issue, the Turks would ultimately sign up. Ankara is not walking away from NATO, and there will be a compromise—the Turks are not asking for anything unreasonable—but it seems clear that cost-benefit analysis is now the order of the day in Ankara.

Before anyone gets mad at me (you know who you are), I am not making an argument that Turkey is drifting East and becoming an Islamic state. Rather, what we are seeing is a natural evolution of Turkish foreign policy in which Ankara’s interests and goals differ from Washington. This is a function of geography, democracy, economics, and the profound changes in international politics 17 years after the end of the Cold War. Turkey is just being Turkey. That’s should be OK in some areas and more problematic in others, but there is precious little Washington or anyone else can do about it.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Muneeb A Pasha

    Hi Steven,

    Thank you for a very insightful post; although I only follow developments in the region and their potential implications as an interesting mental exercise, I cannot but agree with you on the notion that it’s just “Turkey being Turkey.”

    I noted in a blog post a couple of months ago that for Turkey to play all sides in an argument is nothing new, and that the close Turkish alignment with NATO and alliance with Israel during the Cold War was an aberrant exigency given the strategic situation in the Middle East at the time. Turkey is not going to stop looking Westward for either her identity or economic/political support, but we should not be surprised if there is an increasing tendency in Ankara to weigh each option more stringently, and dissent more vocally.


    Islamabad, Pakistan

  • Posted by Yigit Sinanoglu

    great post Mr.Cook

  • Posted by Chris Sfatos

    Mr. Cook, insightfull points here. If I may expand a bit on your point about “vastly different perception” what I understand from observing Turkey is a huge appetite for risk and gamble. High risk taking is mainly encouraged by the tailwinds in the economy, basically because Turkey can place its bets on the developing economies lying eastward and its low manufacturing costs. Some risk taking backfires (spell ISRAEL) but Turkey seems to able to hedge it with an overflowing basket of initatives.
    The real risk for Turkey, I think, is in five years (the number comes from calculatins, not out of my mind) when the economy’s overheating plus rising costs of labor and a new round of inflation will require a new mode of operation. Hence Turkey is unlikely to re-organize its strategic thinking away from the safe heavens of the West and will not be just Turkey but part of a bigger context. What that context will be remains to be seen.

  • Posted by Konur Alp

    As a Turkish citizen I would like to mention some points that I deem necessary to keep in mind when discussing about Turkey. First of all, Turkey has always been the staunchest ally of NATO and the US. Carrying close and candid relations with western world, especially with the USA, has been one of the main pillars of Turkish foreign policy. Thus, turning back to West and emerging as an Eastern country for Turkey is not realistic even though the ruling government is clearly East-leaning, pro-Islamic and to some point anti-western. If you have a chance to read Davutoğlu’s book, written in 1994 i guess when he was in Malaysia, you can see his anti-western and pro-Islamic standpoint. Because the foreign policy of Turkey is formed and carried by Davutoğlu himself, there is nothing interesting about Turkish-Iranian rapprochement and divergence between Turkish and American views on some issues such as Iranian nuclear problem and missile defense system.

    In addition, Turkish people have not forgotten what happened in 1962 in Cuban Missile Crises. At those times Turkey had repeatedly stated that it would be upset if the Jupiter missiles were removed. However, at the end, the US agreed to remove all missiles set in Turkey in exchange for USSR removing all missiles in Cuba. Now, Turkey does not want to be subject to any similar positions, and emphasizing the fact that as an independent country she could have differing policies with other states. Turkey’s demands (no identification of the target and reserve on Israel’s accession) are what it ought to be. Turkey’s feeling that it could pose some threats to Turkey in case the missile are used against Iran, is not at all implausible. Turkey’s close relations with Iran and other Mid Eastern countries should not be considered as a threat to western world but as a window of opportunity. Turkey can/should serve as a mediator but would be better if not host those missiles.

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