Shadow Government

Missile defense and the Turkish problem

NATO’s 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system — the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey’s about to spoil the party. The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

NATO’s 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system — the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey’s about to spoil the party.

The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this weekend’s NATO summit, which will otherwise be consumed with attempts to wring commitments to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 and the approval of a new strategic concept  (a topic which none but the most tenacious NATOphile has any interest in). Without missile defense, the news will be about President Barack Obama hiding behind NATO to walk away from his July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal commitment. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already set two conditions that must be met for Turkey to host essential missile defense radar components: any system must cover all of Turkish territory (a demanding operational standard), and all references to Iran as the threat must be eliminated (what should be an easy hurdle for the alliance, given its history of "dual track" decisions of deploying nuclear forces while negotiating their removal). But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has upped the ante, stating that Turkey should have command of the system. Turkey commanding NATO’s missile defenses is surely a deal breaker, not least because of questions about the political reliability of their government. There are alternatives to sitting the radar in Turkey, but there will be a messy dispute and another international disappointment for the Obama administration if a different site must now be chosen. It sounds as though what the Turks are actually asking for is a visible role in a defense system that will be based on their territory. Surely an alliance with NATO’s celebrated history of chimera can find a way to accommodate Erdogan’s sensitivities.

The new demand will no doubt aggravate an Obama administration — which was looking forward to a celebratory NATO summit — already short-tempered by the frustrations of dealing with Turkey. Administration officials have apparently mythologized a pre-democratic Turkey, when its military ran the country and was compliant to U.S. wishes. It is one more verse in the hymn about the unbearable difficulty of problems they inherited. This narrative not only neglects that Turkey has always been a difficult ally (ask anyone involved in the 1992 NATO exercise accident, or Iraq in 2003, it also neglects that the Obama administration volunteered for the job.

Math class is hard and it always has been. While the Turks are behaving badly, we are giving them no positive agenda to work with us on. The Obama administration needs to think anew about how to make this ambitious and difficult Turkish government successful in foreign policy. Give them constructive roles that capitalize on their desire to be seen as the Brazil of the Middle East, find terms on which we can support them, and showcase their successes. In other words, polish up on alliance relations.

This post has been updated.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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