I am headed to Turkey later today for the second part of the Young Turkey Young America program (in case you have forgotten or are new to this blog, explanation here) and will be spending the next two weeks in Ankara and Istanbul getting the Turkish perspective on the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations. As I noted after the first part of this program in September, the relationship between the two countries seemed stronger than ever, and U.S. government officials, business leaders, and foreign policy analysts were overwhelmingly positive about Turkey’s global role and its importance to U.S. interests. Turkey was seen as a crucial and helpful ally, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly had a strong personal relationship, and everything was humming along as smoothly as possible.
Since then, however, some storm clouds have developed on the horizon, and I will be very interested to see whether the wide variety of Turkish officials with whom we are meeting are as positive about the U.S. as American officials were about Turkey back in the fall. In the period since then, a number of issues have either cropped up anew or have intensified, and Washington and Ankara do not seem to be as much on the same page as they were before. The two governments have had sharper disagreements over the proper course to pursue in Syria, with Turkey wanting to aggressively arm the rebels and the Obama administration (wisely in my view) holding back. There is also friction over Iraq and how much independence the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north should have from Baghdad. Issues surrounding freedom of speech and imprisonment of journalists have become more prominent as well, and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was called on the carpet after criticizing the government over the Ergenekon trials. Then there is the lingering Israel issue, with Erdoğan’s Zionism-equals-fascism comment last week only the latest in a long line of vitriol directed at Jerusalem that complicates Turkey’s standing here in Washington. In September I wrote the following:
The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
I think this is even more salient now than it was a few months ago, and with the establishment of an Israel-Hellenic caucus in Congress and arms deals with Turkey either being held up or not being introduced into committee at all, there is no doubt in my mind that Turkey’s feud with Israel is adversely impacting its interests in the U.S. Furthermore, the danger for Ankara is that its standing among policymakers is contingent upon it being seen as a helpful ally because it does not have a real independent base of support here otherwise. Unlike Israel, which has a strong relationship with the U.S. for a host of reasons – including the strength of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups – but that all stem from the fact that Israel is immensely popular with most Americans and even loved by many, Turkey does not enjoy this same status. If Erdoğan and his government keep on having disagreements with Washington over Syria, Iraq, Israel, and other issues, Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is bound to suffer a decline, no matter how often Obama and Erdoğan talk on the phone.
Over the next two weeks, aside from enjoying time spent with good friends in one of my favorite places in the whole world, I will be thinking about these issues and trying to assess U.S.-Turkey relations in the larger context of everything else taking place. The relationship is one of critical importance, and while nobody expects both countries to agree on everything or to see eye to eye on every issue, it behooves them both to ensure that bumps in the road do not turn into roadblocks. So with that, an iyi yolculuklar to me, and I will do my best to blog what I can over the next couple of weeks.