“Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey this week,” Reuters reported on Wednesday, “as part of a trip to Western Europe and Asia to consult allies on issues including Syria’s civil war.”
Turkey? An “ally?”
In United States foreign policy-making, perception often lags reality. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama assumed that, in the post-Soviet era, Moscow shared our hopes of building a cooperative bilateral relationship -- notwithstanding Vladimir Putin’s growing authoritarianism at home and confrontationism abroad.
Those presidents, and their predecessors all the way back to Jimmy Carter, hoped to convince Tehran to begin a new era of cooperation with the U.S. -- notwithstanding the anti-American hostility that’s endemic to the regime, and every administration’s failure on that front since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
So, Washington’s reluctance to recognize the fundamental change under way in the Turkey of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and appreciate its ramifications for the once-solid U.S.-Turkey relationship, shouldn't surprise us. (That, the Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama has logged more phone calls to Erdogan than to any world leader except British Prime Minister David Cameron,” reflects that reluctance.)
But, make no mistake: Erdogan’s Turkey has become an increasingly hostile force for the U.S. and its allies and, in the future, its cooperation on regional issues will come not out of traditional notions of U.S.-Turkish friendship. It will come, instead, only episodically and out of a cold-blooded analysis of Turkey’s self-interest.
We’d be wise to recognize the ever-more apparent change, not hold false hopes of returning to a bygone age.
Consider Turkey’s positioning of late on the regional challenges that confront Ankara and its supposed “ally” in Washington. Take Syria, from which tens of thousands of refugees have poured into Turkey during President Bashar al-Assad’s horrific crackdown on rebel forces.
The two nations and their leaders have clashed mightily as Syria has continued to implode, with Syria even firing at a Turkish jet last June. In an interview that, according to Turkish media, will air on Friday, Assad claims Erdogan “has not said a single word of truth” about Syria’s conflict since it began.
Turkey and Israel (America’s most important regional ally) share concerns about Syria’s future -- the former because of its long border with Syria, and the latter because of Syria’s chemical weapons that could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, or other radical forces that are now fighting Assad.
In that sense, “the rapprochement” Obama engineered between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the latter apologizing for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident that led to the deaths of nine Turkish citizens, isn't that surprising. The two nations will presumably cooperate behind the scenes to share intelligence and help one another protect their own interests.
What’s particularly striking is the criticism Erdogan has continued to level at the Jewish state since the apology. He still calls the flotilla incident, during which Israeli forces defended themselves from attack after boarding a ship, a “massacre” and a “murder,” and he insists Turkish-Israeli “normalization” won’t occur until Jerusalem compensates the victims and lifts its blockade of Gaza.
Erdogan’s hostility toward Israel reflects his broader approach to the region, one that not just threatens Israel’s security but also clashes profoundly with the long-standing U.S. approach to regional challenges.
The Turkish leader is helping to spearhead efforts at Palestinian unity between the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank (and which Washington and Jerusalem back) and Hamas, which rules Gaza (and which Ankara backs).
Erdogan has showered Hamas, the terrorist group that promotes Israel’s destruction, with hundreds of millions of dollars for hospitals, mosques, and schools in recent years, according to regional expert Jonathan Schanzer. In addition, he recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which will further legitimize Hamas.
Meanwhile, Turkey has helped Iran evade global financial sanctions over its nuclear program (by funneling funds through Turkey’s banking system, for instance), undercutting U.S. efforts to isolate and squeeze Tehran, and accelerating the time frame under which Israel may have to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
More broadly, Erdogan’s Turkey looks less like the Westernizing ally of U.S. hopes and more like an emerging Islamic state with a shrinking regard for Western ideals of freedom and democracy, tolerance and pluralism.
Erdogan has muzzled the military, which traditionally protected the secular state from efforts at Islamization, and he has cracked down hard at media critics, jailing more journalists than even the brutal regime in Beijing.
So, yes, let’s work with Turkey when we can. Let’s not assume, however, that the opportunities to do so will be plentiful.
Erdogan’s Turkey is profoundly different than the Turkey with which the U.S. worked closely for decades.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”