Hugh Pope has a long and excellent roundup in the Cairo Review of Erdoğan’s first decade at Turkey’s helm, and it is a useful summary of the important trends that have taken place, particular in the foreign policy realm. Something that jumped out at me is Pope’s analysis of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, to which he does not devote an entire section but which pops up in a few places. He describes Erdoğan’s rushing to placate the U.S. following his embarrassment at the parliamentary vote denying help with the Iraq War, and that Turkish granting of overflight rights and supply routes and the subsequent deal for U.S. intelligence on the PKK helped usher in what Ankara has described at a golden age in relations with Washington. Pope also points to the return of a Cold War dynamic in which the U.S. looks the other way in ignoring Turkish authoritarian behavior at home in return for a reliable ally that secures American interests.
Certainly, Turkish government officials like to play up the relationship with Washington and what they see as a vital partnership, and they like to point out similarities in the two countries’ political development. I heard Davutoğlu speak at Georgetown in 2010 in a talk titled “Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-U.S. Partnership in the 21st Century” in which he embraced Obama’s term of a”model partnership” and then talked about Turkey’s four “political restorations” (the Tanzimat reforms, establishment of the republic, multiparty democracy, and what is going on now with AKP constitutional reforms) and cleverly made a comparison to the U.S. by asserting that it too went through four political restorations. Especially as Turkey has drifted farther away from Europe, first as European countries openly snubbed its EU membership bid and then as Turkey determined that it did not need Europe as much as it had originally thought, it has moved even closer to the U.S. Even though this should not be a point that ever bears repeating, casual observers tend to forget that Turkey is a member of NATO and that it is a valuable strategic ally in numerous ways.
The upshot of this is that in thinking about Erdoğan’s comments over the past week regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and how no state has the right to threaten Iran over what he deems to be an entirely peaceful pursuit of nuclear power, and how the NATO X-Band radar is not directed at thwarting or containing Iran, ultimately it’s not going to make a lick of difference. The growing chasm between Turkey and Europe along with its loss of Syria as its primary Arab ally mean that the relationship with the U.S. is even more inviolate than ever. Erdoğan did everything he could to repair ties with Washington following the Iraq War, and despite the perception of a Turkish turn to the east, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are too savvy to go back to the dark days of spring 2003 when it comes to the U.S., even if it eventually means tossing Iran overboard and not looking back. The announcement on Friday that Turkey would be cutting back its imports of Iranian oil is the most recent datapoint in this regard, and no doubt if the U.S. decides to go even further and eventually take military action, Turkey will quietly follow along. I still stand by my musings from last week about Erdoğan’s perplexing move of jetting straight to Tehran from Seoul, and it makes sense in this context since Turkey has perhaps the most to lose from a U.S.-Iranian confrontation and will do anything it can to prevent it from happening. Turkey benefits from its relationship with Iran and does not want to lose it, but now that it has lost Syria and Europe, it simply cannot lose the U.S. as well.
The implications for U.S. pressure on Turkey to maintain its liberalizing reforms and not roll back any progress that was made between 2002 and 2009 are that no such pressure will be forthcoming any time soon. The U.S.-Turkey relationship has moved firmly into the realm of realpolitik, and anyone expecting Washington to speak out on press intimidation or harassing of political opponents will be waiting a long time. The U.S. needs Turkey more than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring and Turkey equally needs the U.S., and so the golden age/model partnership is going to be maintained no matter the hardships on either side. If it means Ankara sacrificing its relationship with Iran or the U.S. appearing to cynically give an ally a free pass, so be it.