A year of rediscovery for US and Turkey

The United States and Turkish governments in many senses rediscovered each other in 2011, achieving constructive engagement — especially in the aftermath of the people’s revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.

In stark contrast, the previous year Ankara irked many in Washington with its relatively accommodating stance vis-à-vis Tehran. Deep tactical differences between the two governments on how to deal with Iran’s controversial nuclear program yielded to Turkey’s decision to cast a no vote for sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. The US, in return, raised its concerns publicly and privately to a point where there were untypically harsh exchanges between US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a meeting on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Toronto. Amidst serious doubts about the direction of Turkey, some American observers even speculated the country was changing its traditional Western trajectory

US-Turkish official relations miraculously recovering from that low point and quickly ascending to one of its best periods in history this year can mainly be attributed to the so-called Arab Spring. Despite initial confusion, both governments eventually adopted a pro-change strategy in the region and found reliable partners in each other. Turkey — with its increasing appeal to the Arab Street and improved political influence — actively helped many US goals such as ousting the Col. Gaddafi regime in Libya and boosting pressure on the Assad regime in Syria. Turkey considers its US ties important for securing its interests in the regional power play evident between an Iran-led Shiite bloc and Sunni nations. In a dramatic twist of events, Ankara undoubtedly positioned itself with the US and other Western allies by agreeing to host a critical NATO missile defense radar that Iran sees as a threat. Iran, in return, is using its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to block Turkish reintegration with the rest of the region for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman state.

Iraq, once a subject of deep resentment between the US and Turkey due to Washington’s unilateral occupation and Ankara’s hesitation to support it, has turned into a crucial ground for cooperation. In the aftermath of the American troop withdrawal, both governments want to see a unified and stable Iraq. In the event that the country breaks up, Turkey’s enhanced economic, political and social ties with the Kurdish north closely allied with Washington would serve as a cushion. The US government has proved sensitive to Turkey’s national security concerns regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which uses the mountains in northern Iraq as a safe haven for its terrorists. Intelligence aid provided to Turkey will not be interrupted by the halt of US operations in Iraq. Four US surveillance drones have been transferred to the US air base in İncirlik, Adana, and have been operating from there. In November, the US Congress approved the sale of three SuperCobra attack helicopters to Turkey.

Historically, the most difficult terrain for Turkey in Washington has been Capitol Hill. 2011 was no exception, especially given the political sensitivities aroused by Turkey’s seriously deteriorated relations with Israel. Pro-Israel forces joined with traditionally hostile elements such as the Armenian and Greek lobbies to make life difficult for Turkey in the US Congress. However, as usual, the US House of Representatives fell short of passing a resolution marking the events of 1915 as the “Armenian genocide.” The House adopted Resolution 306 in December that urged Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage and return confiscated Christian properties.

On the other hand, the Obama administration applauded an August decree by the Erdoğan government that invited non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues that were confiscated 75 years ago. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which had initially blocked Francis Ricciardone’s appointment as US ambassador to Ankara, approved the nomination in September. What is remarkable was the fact that despite the rift with Israel, the closest US ally in the Middle East, Washington was able to improve its relations with Ankara on a separate track, while urging restraint to both sides. Even Ankara’s veiled threats to Tel Aviv over its cooperation with the Greek Cypriot government on natural gas exploration in a coastal area disputed by the Turkish Cypriots received a relatively muted response from Washington.

President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan personally invested generously in bilateral relations and have largely been instrumental in setting the current positive tone from atop. Perhaps only second to his British counterpart, President Obama has frequently called Erdoğan to consult and reflect on the developments in the region. Obama has made it clear he attaches a special value to relations with Turkey by making Ankara one of his first foreign destinations upon assuming office. Obama and Erdoğan were quick to recover from the hiccups of 2010 and built a cordial relationship, unparalleled by any American and Turkish leaders.

At the lower levels of bureaucracy, especially at the State Department, suspicions concerning Turkey’s relatively independent foreign policy linger to some extent. Likewise, American ambitions in the region keep Turkish cynicism alive in a nation where the US government’s public image remains low. However, Turkish officials are relieved by the visibly improved level and frequency of official consultations. It’s very rare for both the US president and vice president to visit a foreign nation in the same term. Vice President Joe Biden’s successful visit to Turkey in early December only reaffirmed the positive trend in US-Turkish relations.

From Afghanistan to the Balkans, from Central Asia to Africa, Turkey’s dynamic foreign policy and growing economic clout is increasingly regarded as an asset by the Americans. When the US is confronted by hurdles in continuing its military dominance and faces resistance from local populations, an emerging Turkey provides a useful venue for many American political and economic projects. Turkey’s improving democracy and strong security ties with the West — despite diminishing prospects for EU membership — serve as an antidote to the clash of civilizations that the US is also trying to avert. Apparently there is no better ally than Turkey practically and ideologically to counter anti-Western radical and terrorist movements emanating from the Muslim world. However, a lack of meaningful trade between the two countries and relatively poor public knowledge remains a mutual challenge.