This op-ed by Kadir Ustun and Kilic Kanat was first published by Hurriyet Daily News on February 2, 2013.
Turkey’s relations with the United States over the last decade witnessed wild swings and shifts. The AK Party decade coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a global economic crisis, as well as a relative decline of the U.S. stature in the world. This period also overlapped with dramatic changes in the Middle East, as the ousting of longstanding authoritarian leaders led to the emergence of a generation of new leaders across the Arab world. A new Turkey as a regional power is faced with a new U.S. effort to reconsider its role in the region and around the globe.
In the 1990s, U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations experienced problems largely resulting from an overdue revision of the post-Cold War international system in the wake of an emerging multi-polar world. The long-established tutelary system in Turkey allowed a military-to-military relationship with Israel and the U.S. without much civilian input or oversight. The Turkish view of the Israeli influence in U.S. politics led to a trilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel, and the U.S. in the late 1990s, mostly focused on security and military cooperation.
When the November 2002 elections brought the AK Party to power, Turkish-American relations were in a state of distress. The first major rift in the new millennium between Turkey and the U.S. occurred as a result of U.S. plans to topple Saddam Hussein by invading Iraq. The debate galvanized Turkish public opinion, first against a U.S. operation in Iraq and then against the possibility of Turkey’s support of this operation. On March 1, 2003, Turkish Parliament voted against the government’s proposed resolution to allow U.S. troops to open a northern front from Turkish soil. As the insurgency intensified in Iraq, the Turkish public became more reactive to the ongoing war and Turkish policy makers remained engaged to ensure stability and a quick recovery in Iraq.
In much of the 2000s, Turkey’s goal of economically integrating different states in order to form a conflict-free zone in the Middle East contradicted the U.S. policy of internationally isolating “rogue regimes” in the region. Turkey’s proactive engagement with such regimes (Syria) and actors (Hamas) was interpreted as a major deviation from the Western orientation of its foreign policy. Turkish foreign policy makers considered talking with every actor to be one of the most significant steps to achieve this goal.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the leaders of both countries improved the level of communication and cooperation on regional issues. President Obama’s first overseas visit was to Turkey and it was regarded as a welcome development among the Turkish public and policymakers. However, the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010, where Israeli special forces killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American citizen onboard a civilian ship’s humanitarian aid mission to Gaza, created a major source of disagreement between the U.S. and Turkey. Turkey expected the U.S. to pressure the Israeli side but the administration did not feel that it was in a position to do so for domestic political reasons.
Questioning Turkey’s relations with the Western alliance became commonplace in Washington when the Flotilla raid was followed by Turkey’s “No” vote on sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). A critical turning point in U.S.-Turkey relations was Turkey’s acceptance in hosting the NATO radar in Kürecik, as part of its missile defense shield. Turkey’s timing of the announcement to host the radars could not have been better as it announced sanctions against Israel on the same day. This was a clear message to the U.S. that it would remove Israel from its bilateral relationship with the U.S. and treat it as a separate track.
The U.S.-Turkey relationship took on a fresh dynamic with the onset of the Arab Springin early 2011. Ensuing Arab revolutions altered the regional security and political structure in the Middle East, seriously challenging the U.S.-sponsored security framework in the region. When the revolutions and turmoil were unleashed throughout the region in early 2011, the tone in Washington would now change to regard Turkey as a stable, secular, Muslim-majority democracy to actually be celebrated.
U.S.-Turkey relations have become more diverse than ever during the AK Party decade, as historic changes took place in the Middle East and around the globe. Turkey’s increased economic, political, and diplomatic clout has transformed it into a major player in regional affairs and the country aspires to become a global player over the course of the next decade. The U.S. approach to the Middle East has significantly changed from an interventionist agenda to bring democracy to the region under the Bush administration to a more minimalist outlook under President Obama.
Today, Turkey and the U.S. have a much broader set of common interests outside the traditional, security-oriented frameworks. If both sides can reassure one another that they are mindful of each other’s interests and concerns, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has the potential to contribute to regional peace and stability.
Kadir Üstün is research director and Kılıç Kanat is a research fellow at the SETA Foundation in Washington D.C. This analysis is an excerpt from a recent policy brief published by SETA.