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Washington and Ankara Need Couples Therapy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Barack Obama once described as a “close friend,” no longer appears to enjoy that status. Under President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey, one of the most prominent and long-standing members of NATO, is running out of friends in the West. The Center for American ...

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Barack Obama once described as a “close friend,” no longer appears to enjoy that status. Under President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey, one of the most prominent and long-standing members of NATO, is running out of friends in the West.

The Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington-based think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, highlighted this fact in a recent report that urges the United States to deploy its considerable leverage in the pursuit of a new policy. The report, authored by Michael Werz and Max Hoffman, notes the large political investment Obama administration has made in Erdogan, and suggests that it may be time to leave the AKP government to its “precious loneliness” — a term introduced by Erdogan’s advisor Ibrahim Kalin to underscore the moral superiority of Ankara’s foreign policy.

The reality is that there is nothing precious about Turkey’s current isolation. Americans are deeply alienated by the increasingly anti-Western rhetoric of Turkish leaders, some of whom have accused the West of plotting against the Islamic world and inciting Muslims to kill one another. When a man in North Carolina murdered three Muslim students in February, Erdogan saw fit to scold President Obama: “If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, the world will stay silent toward you” — a snide reference to American efforts to recruit allies for a coalition against the Islamic State (IS). Anti-Americanism may appeal to Turkish voters, but Ankara seems completely oblivious to the long-term effects of such statements. Turkey’s Western allies are increasingly questioning its intentions, leaving many in Washington to describe the current state of the relationship as “all pain, no gain.”

The rhetoric is bad enough, but it pales against the deepening policy differences between the two countries. While defeating the Islamic State is the West’s first priority, Ankara continues to believe that targeting Bashar al-Assad takes precedence. For that reason Turkey has been a reluctant member of the anti-IS coalition, continuing to resist entreaties to open Incirlik base to the coalition. Some in Washington are even suggesting shifting U.S. operations from the Turkish air base at Incirlik somewhere else — perhaps to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey and the United States have starkly divergent views not only on Syria but on the Middle East in general. In Egypt, the AKP government fiercely defended the legitimacy of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and strongly opposed the subsequent military coup that toppled it. Turkey has close relations with the Palestinian authorities and is strongly critical of Israel, so it disapproves of American support for Tel Aviv. At one point Erdogan even accused Israel of having “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” through its attacks on Gaza.

Turkey’s recent defense procurement policies are an additional irritant. Despite warnings from NATO, Turkey has just made a preliminary choice to have China supply it with a new long-range air and missile defense system. Beijing’s bid was significantly lower than those offered by its rivals, and the Chinese sweetened the deal with an ample technology transfer. NATO and U.S. officials point out, though, that it will be impossible to integrate a Chinese-built system with Turkey’s current NATO-standard air defense assets. Washington has also warned that any Turkish company acting as a local subcontractor could ultimately face serious American sanctions, since the Chinese company supplying the system has been sanctioned under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act.

Turkey’s good relations with Russia are also raising eyebrows in Washington. A senior U.S. State Department official has said that the United States needs to know if it and Turkey are “on the same page” regarding Russian energy policy. Turkey has been notably unwilling to follow American and European censure of Russia’s policies in Ukraine. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu justifies Turkey’s stance in terms calculated to aggravate the rift. At a recent event in Washington, he accused the Americans and their allies of hypocritically ignoring Russian support for Assad: “Is it because … those people who were killed [in Syria] were Muslims and Syrians, and those who were killed in Ukraine were Christians and Ukrainian? Is that the difference? If Russia did wrong, we have to be consistent,” said Davutoglu at the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month.

The CAP report also touches upon an aspect mentioned (behind closed doors) by many U.S. officials — what it describes as Turkey’s propensity to engage in complicating negotiations with the United States “over what should be basic transactions between allies in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” In public, though, most American officials are holding their tongues for the sake of maintaining a good working relationship on day-to-day security issues. But by focusing on the need to maintain a placid façade for the sake of expediency, the Obama administration may be sending the wrong message — namely, that it regards Erdogan and Turkey as synonymous. This is an understandable yet ill-advised policy. While the AKP enjoys considerable support among Turkish voters, and will undoubtedly win a majority of the votes in upcoming national elections this summer, Turkey is still more than Erdogan. The protests of 2013 showed, in particular, that there is a large group of young Turks who aspire to live in a free, open society that respects the rule of law, human rights, and democracy.

Washington sometimes seems to be forgetting this fact. Last month, just days before his retirement, Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, paid a visit to Ankara. During his three-day visit, Melia, who led the team that puts together State’s annual human rights report, met with civil society representatives and officials from the ruling AKP, but not with representatives of opposition parties. While the Obama administration certainly needs to work with the Turkish government in many areas, its unconditional support for Erdogan runs the risk of alienating those Turks — some 50 percent of the country’s population — who didn’t give him their votes.

The CAP report should be a wake-up call for the Turkish government. Recently, 74 senators sent a letter to Secretary John Kerry highlighting their concern over the decline of Turkish democracy. And last year, 80 foreign-policy figures in Washington wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to make clear that “Erdogan’s autocratic actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”

These days there is a conspicuous lack of people willing to speak up for Erdogan’s policies in Washington. There was a time, not so long ago, when Erdogan liked to visit the U.S. capital and bask in his good relations with President Obama at cozy private dinners; if he ever wants to return to those days, he will probably need to stop bashing the United States at every opportunity he gets. “It [the U.S.-Turkey relationship] feels like a marriage that has gotten a little old,” says Michael Werz said in an interview. “It is not a real love affair anymore.” The consequences of a divorce would be devastating; Washington and Ankara would be much better off considering marriage counseling. The problems certainly won’t go away as long as the two go on ignoring them. This is a good time for decision-makers in both capitals to focus on what’s at stake.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, March 26, 2015: Turkey has not finalized its choice of China as the vendor for its new air and missile defense system. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that China had already been selected, and that competing offers from France and the United States had been rejected.

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