Gordian Knots: America’s Unsolvable Turkish Dilemma
Is Turkey an enemy or ally of the United States? An alien coming to Earth in the fall of 2019 to study our planet’s geopolitics might find itself thoroughly confused on that question. After all, it remains a member of the U.S. most important military alliance, NATO, and plays host to Incirlik Air Base, America’s largest outside of the continental United States. And yet, the voice of official Washington has been deeply divided on the Turkish question of late. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria was greeted with outrage by many prominent figures in the nation’s capital, ranging from Chuck Schumer to Lindsey Graham. America’s relationship with Turkey and its deterioration has no end in sight, and it is a symptom of a broader problem that confronts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The House of Representatives just voted not only to impose sanctions on Turkey, but also, after decades of inaction out of deference to the U.S.-Turkish alliance, passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide for the first time. All of this would have been inconceivable as recently as four years ago in the Washington foreign policy landscape, if not even more recently. And this is part of the problem- to an outside observer, Washington’s sudden moral outrage about Turkish bad behavior, whether it be its actions in Syria or calling the increasing domestic authoritarianism of its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might come off as laughably transparent and hypocritical considering the preceding seventy years of the U.S. relationship with Turkey and other Middle Eastern powers.
In its current form, America’s relationship with Turkey was born out of the same cold, calculating pragmatism as its relationship with Saudi Arabia, another longtime Middle Eastern ally that Washington has only very recently (in the wake of the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) found to be “problematic” and “concerning.” Both Middle Eastern powers were sitting on something vital to the U.S. desire to extend its influence around the globe post-WWII, as well as check the influence of the Soviet Union as the Cold War began. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was its vast reserves of petroleum, and the al-Saud family’s ability to supply it to the United States and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Soviet-friendly Arab nationalist regimes that were popping up all around the Middle East during this period. Turkey may not have had oil, but it had an extremely important geographical position. The only country in the world to be situated in both Europe and Asia at the same time, it sits astride the Bosphorus strait, which the Soviet Union, like the Russian Empire before it, coveted as a gateway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Although Turkey had emerged as a republic in the 1920s out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, it hardly fit with the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. From its founding it was ruled by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an Ottoman military officer who imposed republican secularism on the majority Islamic nation with an iron fist- he famously banned the traditional Turkish hat, the fez, and heavily and forcefully promoted western clothing and cultural norms, if not democratic political ones. Although Attaturk died in 1938, his successors only slightly loosened the reins of power, and his model of forced secularism would dominate Turkish politics for decades to come.
During the Second World War, Turkey had remained neutral despite some tentative flirtation with the Axis powers, but the Cold War called for further steps to be taken. During Attaturk’s time, Turkey had enjoyed friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and the prospect of that rearing its head again- or worse, an outright takeover by the then-powerful Turkish Communist Party, seemed a disastrous prospect to American policymakers. Thus it was that, in 1952, Turkey would be inducted as a full member into the NATO alliance, thus turning it into a geopolitical spear aimed directly at the Soviet Union’s heart.
Subsequently, Turkey would in fact play an underappreciated role in one of the Cold War’s closest brushes with nuclear disaster. It was John F. Kennedy’s initiative to put American nuclear ballistic missiles on Turkish soil that prompted Nikita Khrushchev to counter by threatenting to ship Soviet missiles to Cuba, thus sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. And through it all, while America promoted itself as a shining beacon of freedom set against the dark tyranny of Moscow, NATO turned a blind eye to the fact that Turkey did not nearly come close to living up to the standards the NATO countries ostensibly set for themselves.
Since the 2016 election, the term “deep state” has become frequently bandied about in American political discourse, though few of those who spout the term ad nauseam know the origins of it. The term comes from the peculiarities of Turkish politics in the Cold War era, where nominally free elections with multiple parties were held, but any Turkish person on the street could tell you that the real power lay elsewhere. That power would actually reside with a group of military officers and state bureaucrats, devoted to Attaturk’s vision of a secular Turkey, who would remove any elected Prime Minister who even threatened to challenge the status quo. Once “order had been reimposed” and the threat removed, the “deep state” would then allow the course of elections to resume, provided no parties involved dared to rock the boat again.
The first coup took place in 1960, and ended violently, with the execution by hanging of then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, believed by the “deep state” to be too lenient on political Islam. Once the pattern had been established, however, subsequent coups (there were five between 1960 and 1997), had no need for bloodshed, as the military was so secure in its ability to impose its will that all it had to do was send an elected government a written memo and the government would instantly dissolve. Ironically, the man currently denounced as the killer of Turkish democracy is the one who helped to break the cycle of coups in the first place.
The victim of the final “coup by memo,” delivered in 1997, was Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamist-leaning Welfare Party. While not killed, Erbakan was sentenced to two years imprisonment and banned from taking any active positions in Turkish political life. This did not, however, prevent him from acting as a mentor to several up and coming politicians who sympathized with his vision for Turkey, including a relatively young unknown named Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who had just been elected Mayor of Istanbul. When Erdogan led the newly-formed Justice and Development Party (AKP) to electoral victory in 2003 and assumed the Premiership himself, he was hailed as a liberal reformer who would strengthen and deepen Turkish democracy. He negotiated a ceasefire with the Kurdish insurgent group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and allowed Turkey’s Kurdish regions more autonomy than they had ever had before. He also took measures to reform Turkey’s military and remove the “deep state” officers who had bedeviled his predecessors. Finally, he enacted economic reforms meant to prepare Turkey for entry into the European Union, which would augur Turkey’s full, final integration into the democratic, Western order, or at least it seemed that would be the case at the time.
At the same time, Turkey’s geopolitical importance to the United States would continue unabated. The Cold War was over, but the so-called Global War on Terror would shortly thereafter take its place, and America’s military presence in Turkey would be critical to American military action in the Middle East. The Turkish public was overwhelmingly opposed to America’s war in Iraq, and although Turkey did allow American airbases on its territory to be used for Iraq operations, Turkey itself would not actively participate in the war. Although Turkey would seemingly continue on as a willing NATO partner after that, the precedent had been set for Erdogan, a highly transactional political leader all along, to begin to feel slighted by actions he had taken on behalf of the U.S. for an inadquate return.
Although Iraq and Turkey’s role in it may have been a canary in the coal mine for the deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations, it would be the conflict in Syria that would finally bring these tensions to the forefront and cause them to boil over. Turkey and Syria have had longstanding border disputes, and although relations had thawed between the countries early in Erdogan’s administration, he saw the U.S.-backed rebellion against Bashar al-Assad (himself praised early in his term as a liberal reformer in the West) as a golden opportunity to settle the ledger. Turkey would serve as a critical source of arms, funding and logistical support to various insurgents in Syrian territory, including, it is alleged, the Islamic State itself. If Turkey did in fact aid or abet ISIS, it would be out of the same impulse that led Saudi Arabia to turn a blind eye to, if not outright bankroll, Al Qaeda’s operations; better to export young Islamic radicals rather than have them cause trouble at home, and if they can cause trouble for a geopolitical enemy such as Syria, all the better.
Like a wildfire, ISIS would spread, seemingly out of control, into Iraq in the summer of 2014. As reports of genocide committed by ISIS in northern Iraq spread, the U.S. countered the group’s spread by pumping weapons, money and special forces “advisors” to support the one local group capable of stopping them- the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The American-supported Kurds became an international cause celebre, famous for their female combat units and their idiosyncratic brand of libertarian socialism loosely inspired by the ideas of American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. They even inspired some like-minded Americans to take up arms and go to Syria to join the cause; one Bay Area native who did so, Brace Belden, became a minor celebrity profiled in New York magazine and Rolling Stone. American support for the Kurds seemed on the surface to be a win-win, rolling back ISIS while also being an exercise in genuine promotion of a grassroots democratic movement, not a forceful imposition from above like the invasion of Iraq had been. But the feel good story would not be without a price.
Although early on in Erdogan’s tenure relations with Turkey’s Kurdish population had improved as the PKK insurgency died down, it never fully went away, and American support for the YPG inflamed tensions between the U.S. and its ally in a way that had never before been seen. Turkey’s position on the YPG was that it and the PKK (which is officially classified as terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department) are one and the same, an assertion that has been all but confirmed in, among other places, interviews with the aforementioned American YPG combatant Belden.
Erdogan already resented the U.S. for its criticism of his handling of opposition protests in 2013, but the relationship would only spiral downward from there. When anti-Erdogan forces within the military made one final attempt at ousting him in 2016, Erdogan publicly and loudly accused the U.S. of supporting them (ironically, it was Erdogan’s early military reforms, praised as democratic advances, that weakened Turkey’s “deep state” enough for him to survive the coup and subsequently impose martial law). Subsequently, Turkey has bought a critical missile defense system, the S-400, from Russia, an unprecedented action from a NATO member. And as for the EU, Turkey is farther away from joining than ever.
Lindsey Graham, one of the loudest voices in condemning Turkey’s military action in Syria, and those who think like him in Washington find themselves in a quandary. They may sincerely think that America is still a global beacon of freedom and democracy, and they even may believe in America using all means at its disposal, including military, to spread that freedom and democracy around the world- Graham was an enthusiastic backer of the Iraq War. The problem, especially in the Middle East, is that the U.S. ability to “spread democracy” was always dependent on having to make deals with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that did not themselves live out America’s liberal values. The hope was that, by virtue of their close economic and political links built up with the West over decades, that these countries would eventually reform themselves in a more open and democratic direction. And in these countries it has been the very men who many in the West thought would be the vehicles for that opening, such as Erdogan or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman, who have come to symbolize these countries’ rejection of the west.
The turn in U.S.-Saudi relations after the killing of Khashoggi deserves its own full length article, but suffice to say that in the wake of unprecedented American condemnation of MBS’ role in Khashoggi’s death (after years of comparable silence in the face of Saudi war crimes in Yemen and domestic political repression), MBS himself has pivoted towards closer ties with Russia and China.
The point here is not to justify the actions that have been taken by these leaders, but rather to diagnose the fact that a decades-long balancing act undertaken by the United States abroad is becoming undone. In the 20th century, the “American century” as it has been dubbed, the United States certainly did aid and abet a number of unsavory leaders worldwide as bulwarks against communism, from the Middle East to the likes of Pinochet in Latin America and Mobutu Sese Seko in Africa. The balancing act was that the U.S. was still able to maintain its reputation as an example for the world to follow in spite of its colder, more pragmatic actions.
In the 20th century, a President such as Ronald Reagan could negotiate pragmatically with the Soviet Union while also supporting (by both public and covert means) dissident movements, such as the Polish trade union Solidarity, within the Eastern bloc that would ultimately bring it down from within. In the case of Turkey, the opposite has happened- Trump’s hamfisted attempt to make a deal with Erdogan is unlikely to bring the U.S. and Turkey closer together again, and the Kurds have now been left to turn to Damascus for protection against Turkey.
It may take much further study to determine why America’s ability to do this has deteriorated- though combinations of the Iraq War and the blatant (to the rest of the world and much of the American public) deceptions surrounding the case that Washington made for it, as well as the failure to deliver the economic fruits of globalization that were promised in the “end of history” 1990s, play key factors. Even the successes of economic globalization are part of it- it is harder for the world to take seriously denunciations of Xi Jinping as the new Mao or Stalin when China is such a vital part of the supply chain for the iPhone, a problem that did not exist during the Cold War. Though it has seen far fewer Americans die than Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. entanglement in Syria and what it has now come to represents a simultaneous failure of America’s hard power and its image as a promoter of democracy in a way that even the Iraq War did not- after all, even then our hard power was more than enough to destroy Saddam Hussein. The new millennium may have started almost twenty years ago, but the geopolitical events of fall 2019 may thus be, in earnest, the start of the post-American century.