If the June 6 New York Times front page article “Turkey Goes from Pliable Ally to Thorn for US” is an indication of the newspaper’s understanding of Turkey and the US-Turkish relationship, its readers are in for trouble.
At the very least, reporters – Sabrina Tavernise and Michael Slackman filing from Ankara – should have spent more time with a book or two on Turkish history or maybe one on US-Turkish relations. I’m surprised that the people they interviewed – including former New York Times Istanbul correspondent Steven Kinzer – didn’t set them straight. Or perhaps the right questions were not asked. Here's the problem: not only is the headline wrong but the premise of the story needs reexamination. Fortunately Tabernise corrected the record somewhat in her Sunday news analysis which described Turkish-Iranian relations far more accurately but she still failed to address the inaccuracy of the less "pliable Turkey" label which was, after all, the thrust of her earlier report.
Pliable US ally?
To describe Turkey during the Cold War – and prior to the election of AKP (the mildly Islamist party that has won elections since 2002) as a pliable US ally is incorrect. It never was.
Turkey has a long tradition of looking out for its own national interests. When those interests coincided with American ones – as they did during much of the Cold War – then well and good. Turkey was a staunch ally against the Soviets. Covetous Soviet eyes on Turkish territory cemented that relationship.
When those interests did not – like the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek junta-inspired coup which upset the shakily agreed upon order and resulted in a temporary arms embargo against Turkey instituted by the US Congress in the aftermath – then Turkey went its own way and there wasn’t much the US 6th Fleet did or, in reality, could do to stop it. Just look at the map: northern Cyprus is very close to the Turkish mainland; Athens is very far away.
Defenders of Turkish interests
As far as I can recall, however, no US government forced - or even persuaded - Turkey to agree to anything it didn’t want to agree to. Pliable? Don’t think so. The Turkish General Staff and the professional diplomats in the Turkish Foreign Ministry defended Turkish interests tenaciously. The Turkish parliament also played an important, and at times crucial, role.
True, during the Cold War, the airbases and US listening posts in the country helped protect Turkey from a hostile neighbor to the north. Turkey’s agreement to build US fighter jets in country coincided with Turkish needs for more advanced military hardware to strengthen its air force plus some cash, jobs, and infrastructural development on the side. Much later, when the US refused to sell drones to the Turks, they bought them from the Israelis as a part of a relationship that had begun with US encouragement during the 1980s.
A little Gulf War I history
Since so much history seems to have been forgotten in a single headline, however, it’s hard to know where to begin. Nevertheless, this is simply a post not an academic treatise, so I think I will concentrate on a little under-reported or misrepresented - but still relevant - Gulf War I history.
Here’s the problem: too many Americans seem to think in retrospect that the then Turkish government under President Turgut Özal went along pliantly with all President George H. W. Bush asked. This did not happen. The Turks agreed to what they saw to be in their national interest and did not agree to what, from their perspective, could cause them unnecessary neighborhood problems.
As Turkish expert William Hale points out in his 2007 book Turkey, the US and Iraq, that while Özal might have liked to agree to all three of the Bush administration’s requests in the run up to the Iraq invasion in 1991, Turkey did not.
The Turkish parliament (Turkey is a parliamentary not presidential democracy and parliament has a say in important foreign affairs matters) ultimately agreed to two of the three American demands (an increase of Turkish troops near the Iraq border and use of Incirlik and other bases as staging areas for coalition forces) but the request that Turkey send its own forces to participate in the invasion was denied. Not only did parliament object but so did the Turkish military, the Foreign Service chiefs and even members of Özal’s own cabinet.
One Constant Among the Shifting Sands
In fact, that Turkish decision had historical roots that date back to 1926 when the border between Iraq and Turkey was finally and painfully established and a war-weary Turkey gave up its claims to Mosul. For Turkey to have reopened the issue in 1991 by participating in an invasion of Iraq especially one that could have placed it in an occupying position in Iraqi Kurdistan would have broken with its traditional Middle East policies, its agreed upon treaty-based relationships with its neighbors as well as been an enormous strategic and economic mistake.
Yes, times have changed and Middle East sands are shifting. Nevertheless, Turkey is one of those countries with a proud history that continues to live in a difficult neighborhood. It is a survivor and in recent years has done quite well for itself. As such it will, inevitably, look out for its own interests. Always has: always will.