The Middle East Channel

Turkey: still America’s best ally in the Middle East?

Listening to the Beltway rhetoric one would think that Turkey is a newly emerging threat to the United States and interests in the Middle East. The speed with which Washington has gone sour on its self-declared "model partner" is astonishing and should be cause for concern. Having just returned from Turkey and with meetings with Turkish ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Listening to the Beltway rhetoric one would think that Turkey is a newly emerging threat to the United States and interests in the Middle East. The speed with which Washington has gone sour on its self-declared "model partner" is astonishing and should be cause for concern. Having just returned from Turkey and with meetings with Turkish officials, it is clear that Turkey has not suddenly "switched sides" but rather still objectively represents America’s best ally. Not because Ankara blindly goes along with Western policies or is subservient to America, but because it offers the U.S. more strategic possibilities and support than any other state in the region.

Unlike Arab allied governments which lack legitimacy among their own populations and Israel that is besieged on all sides, Turkey is a truly democratic, independent, and powerful ally to be courted, not demonized by the U.S. Today, Turkey represents a critical partner to the U.S. on its three most urgent strategic issues: Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. On Afghanistan, Turkey is better placed culturally and militarily than any other NATO ally to play a leading role in Kabul; in this respect, it is America’s ideal partner on Afghanistan. The soft and hard power advantages that the Turks enjoy among the Afghan population offer a sorely needed bright spot in an otherwise dark struggle for America. On Iraq, there is renewed impetus to resolve the long-simmering Kurdish issue given the battle against the PKK and continued incursions into northern Iraq. Without Turkey’s constructive engagement, America’s vital interests and the future of Iraq cannot be secured. Short of coercive action, Ankara is determined to prevent a nuclear Iran and has been attempting its own trilateral diplomacy with the help of Brasila to deal with Tehran. Unfortunately, these attempts — which were originally encouraged by the Obama administration — have led to a divide on the means necessary for the same end goal of a nuclear weapon-free Iran.

Given the timing of the Mavi-Marmara incident in the lead-up to the Iran sanction vote at the UN, former friends of Turkey are linking the two events and blaming the AKP’s "Islamist" roots rather than looking at the tough domestic realities confronting Turkey’s leaders. While the AKP has admittedly gone over the top in its rhetoric given the domestic pressures it faces from a resurgent nationalist movement and upcoming national elections, its actions speak much louder than its words. Diplomatic relations remain intact with Israel despite the killing of nine Turkish citizens (one of whom was a dual American citizen) and Turkey remains actively engaged in all of its Western commitments and institutions.

As the two oldest democracies in the region experiencing dynamic demographic and economic growth with vastly differing consequences, Israeli-Turkish relations will continue to ebb and flow. The present crisis is serious, but it is not unprecedented. The norm for Israeli-Turkish relations is tension, contrary to the rosy pictures now being painted retrospectively about historic relations to legitimate sensational claims. The fact is that Turkey’s nationalist military government downgraded relations with Israel in the 1980s and it was only as a result of domestic politics and the PKK threat from Syria that brought about the "strategic alignment" in the 1990s that was always predicated on progress toward a permanent peace and two-state solution. In this context, the role of the United States is not to take sides, but help mediate the immediate crises with a perspective on longer-term strategic objectives.

For the United States, Turkey’s newfound swagger can make it either a valuable asset or an uncertain partner. By claiming that Ankara is determined to join the Arab League or the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran axis, rather than focusing on the fact that this traditionally conservative Muslim-majority, secular democracy is still a European Union candidate and NATO ally since 1952, Washington is only hurting its own interests.

Turkish policies can complement the United States’ if framed within a broader and longer-term perspective of the transatlantic alliance that shares common goals and values even if the short-term means differ. What is needed now is not an emotional and reactional appraisal of Turkish rhetoric but one that recognizes that contributions to American and European goals may come in a new, and perhaps unfamiliar, guise that requires more, not less engagement.

Encouraging Ankara’s newfound assertiveness and diplomatic initiatives, rather than demonizing it for tactical differences, will ensure that Turkey remains a constructive transatlantic partner and committed U.S. ally in the long run. The fact is that Turkey is a rising power on the international scene as a G-20 founding member, with a European seat on the UN Security Council, and head of the Organization of Islamic Conference in one of the most critical geographies in the world. Turkey has arrived and is not going anywhere, regardless of Washington’s rhetoric about "Who lost Turkey?" Or  "Where is Turkey going?" Therefore, despite all of its bluster and rhetoric, Turkey remains America’s most crucial ally in region.

Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy where the yearlong report on Turkish foreign policy "Getting to Zero: Turkey, its Neighbors, and the West" was recently published.

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