“Did you read the latest Turkey report in The Economist,” Dr. Carol Henry, a chemist and professorial lecturer at George Washington University, asked me during our meeting following her speech at the Appropriate Use of Science in Public Policy discussion in Washington, D.C. Not only The Economist, but many other Western foreign policy journals these days are producing more sophisticated and nuanced studies on Turkey than ever before.
Turkey’s fast-growing economy, its geographic location and close proximity to much of the regions that America has great difficulty dealing with make this 87-year-old young republic even more attractive to wider public policy discussions in Washington. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, nearly decade-long rule brought a political stability to Turkey, but also clear and unusually high-profile disagreements to the relations with the United States. The latest development that makes Turkey the center of many discussion circles in Washington is not surprisingly Turkey’s unwillingness to decide quickly on new NATO anti-missile plans.
Turkish officials, from the top-down, repeatedly stated in recent months that they don’t see Iran as a threat to Turkey’s national security. Dr. Henri Barkey, Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when asked about Turkey's warm feelings towards Iran, stated, “Even though Turkey does not see Iran as a threat, the other 27 members of the NATO alliance do.”
All together, Turkey is increasingly perceived as a "difficult partner" in the alliance, Barkey underlined. Last time Turkey had disagreements with the NATO leadership over Rasmussen's election. Now another critical decision and if Turkey appears to be in another bargaining posture, this seems to becoming a "pattern," Barkey concluded.
“So many sincerity tests come Ankara’s way at once,” one Turkey observer said this week. “Latest NATO anti-missile offer,” said the source, who has very close proximity to the Ankara administration, “shows the limits of the Obama administration’s multilateral worldview.” In other words, the Obama administration seems to introduce another “with us or against us” constraint on Ankara at a time when its administration has just started to fancy steering its own wheel of interest in its wider region, pursuing its own independent policies at an unprecedented level.
Steve Clemons, director of public policy strategies and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, said in an interview that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is currently being recalibrated. “Both sides, following the recent unexpected events, happened to give cold showers to each other. These differences also played the role of wake-up calls for both sides. In fundamental terms though, Turkey’s significance is rising. Turkey is not a reactionary country anymore in terms of its foreign affairs. Turkey is now creating its own circumstances. This is also good for the U.S., because the U.S. needs responsible partners that can work together in other regions."
Clemons, who also publishes a very popular public policy debate blog, The Washington Note, sounded well reversed with the latest developments surrounding Turkey and its relations with NATO and the U.S. “Turkey must be careful when it gambles,” warned Clemons, “and be careful not to compromise the NATO alliance while it is following its own interests.” Saying no to a new NATO shield, predicted Clemons, “might produce results which would be strategically consequential in a very negative sense.”
Clemons said: "The Turkish side deserves credit for many of its policies in recent years that it has undertaken. However, today the world including China and Russia recognizes Iran as security threat and takes their own measures. And that would be a very big mistake for Turkey to overlook this security concern. In that case, Turkey would appear to be appeasing Iran’s rising military capacity. Having harmony in the region or zero problems with neighbors should not mean Turkey is seriously compromising its long term security needs.”
I asked one high-level U.S. military official this week, who held an important military post in Turkey in the past and has vast interest and expertise on relations with Turkey currently, to explain the potential implications if the Turkish administration did not want the radar system to be deployed in its soil as part of the adaptive phase approach. “In military perspective,” the official stated, “the entire NATO missile system would not be destroyed. It would certainly limit the effectiveness of it. ... There would be a need to redesign the architecture of the system. However, it would move forward. Politically, Turkey has been tracing its own interests in various regions. Even though the EU is still the biggest trade partner of Turkey, its eastern neighbors, including Iran, fast on the rise. Turkey has to communicate with its Eastern neighbors, and explain to them that the new NATO anti-missile project is not aggressive in its mission, it is a defensive one. And it is expected to bring more security and stability in the region, therefore better environment for more trade.”
Steve Flanagan, senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me that “the new NATO anti-missile shield is essentially a reinforcement of overall solidarity between the NATO members. If Turkey says a flat ‘no’, that would be very damaging in Turkey’s standing in the alliance.”
Flanagan said: “President Obama justified the new NATO missile shield, which is a different version of the Bush administration. This was about extending a missile defense system to ensure all ally countries’ safety. This version is a cost-effective system compared to the previous one, not excessively requiring a military notion.”
Turkish high-level diplomats, on the other hand, were extremely careful this week not to let any daylight get in between the countries on the matter and rejected any friction.
According to Barkey, the conditions that have been put forward by Ankara would be a face-saving solution, "if these conditions are met, then Turkey will be able to say to its base at home, and even to the Middle Eastern audiences that its demands have been met."
In Washington, the common perspective is that Turkey’s potential rejection of the NATO anti-missile shield would reinforce the perception that Turkey is drifting away from the West as the loudest, sharpest and in a clear statement.
Ankara, even though it wishes to get along well with all sides, including U.S. and Iran at the same time, now has to remember its commitment to its decades-old NATO alliance.
Turkey hates that it is being pushed to choose either and to make a statement about where it is standing once more.
And that is why Turkey hates making this decision