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The U.S. and Turkey: Can we just be friends?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

Remember the kid in your class who was always right, the one who seemingly had the encyclopedia memorized? This kid always had his hand in the air fastest to answer every question and was always the teacher’s favorite. And, just to make matters worse, he probably played the piano like Bach. Trying to outwit this kid was useless, he was smarter than you. Beating him up was counter-productive because you knew when it came time for math homework; you wanted to convince him to let you copy his. Though productive and full of accomplishments, the life of a person like this is often tedious. No one likes the kid who has all the answers.

When I consider foreign relations between Turkey and the United States over approximately the past decade, I’m reminded of this scenario. Turkey has been playing the role of the nerdy kid with their hand always in the air. The U.S. has been playing the role of the frustrated bully. Certainly the Turkish government has made a variety of errors on a variety of fronts, but most of the significant ones have come recently in the form of domestic policy missteps. When specifically considering bilateral relations between these two nations, Turkey has found itself on the right side of events surely far too much for the liking of U.S. officials.

In a widely publicized poll in Turkey in 2002, Turks were asked: “Which country in the world was Turkey’s best friend?” The U.S. placed second with 27 percent in the poll, the first place went to “Nobody” with 33 percent. However, as the U.S. took on another role in the Middle East, new polling data showed that by the end of 2008, 91 percent of Turks disagreed with U.S.-led global war on terror, dragging it down on the list of nations Turks consider as best friends. To understand this better, look at these examples:

The outlook on foreign policy and regional diplomacy of these two nations could not be more different at the moment. While the U.S. prefers to use drones, the Turks prefer to use phones

Ceylan Ozbudak

When the neo-con administration of George W. Bush wanted to begin a war in Iraq, they demanded of Turkey to use their bases, airspace, and land to open a northern front in the conflict. I suppose you could say they “asked” but only in the same way a wife asks her husband if he’d like to take out the trash. There is only supposed to be one answer. This was basically like the bully demanding to be allowed to copy the homework of the smart kid. This made sense for the U.S. of course. They knew the Iraqi military would have no chance to successfully defend against them in a war fought on one front anyway, an invasion from the south. But, forcing them to defend two fronts would make their defenses the military equivalent of Swiss cheese. The tempo of attack could have been increased and victory achieved even more quickly and at less cost, as well as increased ease in transferring troops and materials into the country, if they could force the Iraqis to fight on two fronts. However, no matter how much the U.S. huffed and puffed, they could not blow the Turkish position down.

The Turks saw a different picture when considering their own vital national interests, and in this case, those of the entire region. An invasion from the north would have left a vulnerable Kurdish population in the path of a steamroller. Kurdish populations in Iraq, but also in Syria and especially in Turkey, would have been livid. This move likely would have restarted a conflict within Turkey that might well have lasted another several decades and cost the lives of many thousands more, as did the last period of fighting between the two. The Turkish government had every intention of negotiating a settlement with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) to permanently end hostilities, as we now know, rather than drowning the whole region to bring down PKK resistance. Appeasing a bully in his quest to start a senseless war wasn’t nearly enough of a reason for Turkey to sell out its own long-term interests and endanger the lives of their people. The answer was no, and the U.S. was more than angry. And as it turns out, they were also very wrong. Yes, Saddam was a dictator and he had to go. But this wasn’t the way to do it. The Parliament voted “NO.”

For a more recent example, consider the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western allies against the nation of Iran. A few years ago, Iran had few friends left. Trade was being severely restricted and the regime was under immense pressure. Turkey had been trading Turkish liras for oil and natural gas, which Iran could use to purchase Turkish gold, in order to help keep the regime afloat. The U.S. again, was furious, especially after learning that even though sanctions forbid this trade, Turkey continued anyway. They could not possibly understand why a NATO ally would not cooperate with them in pursuit of their regional agenda.

But again, Turkey saw a bigger picture. Apart from the ancient friendship Turks and Persians shared, Turkey knew Iran was subject to change. They were well aware that moderate elements were rising into positions of power. They made the calculated move that the next election there would bring significant change in Iran’s foreign policy stances. They understood Persian politics better than the U.S., and they knew a brighter day might well be on the horizon. They were furious with Iran as well, especially over their involvement in Syria, but weren’t after revenge.

Dealing with the region

The U.S. public was in no mood for another Middle Eastern military adventure. Bombing runs and missile launches in Libya almost sent the American public and their Congress into convulsions. There was no way a war with Iran was going to happen, no matter how hard lobbies were pushing for such a war. Turkey knew the resolution with Iran would have to be an amicable one between brothers in the end. They knew very well that Persians would negotiate when they are cornered. By helping the Iranian regime to maintain solvency and avoid a total economic meltdown, the regime was able to buy time in negotiations. President Ahmadinejad went into retirement, and a moderate leadership headed by President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif has taken an initiative toward a peaceful solution with the western complainants.

The U.S. has assumed a posture of indignant passive-aggressive behavior. Turkey is openly angry about U.S. actions in Arab lands, inaction in Syria, the lack of support for their EU membership bid, which they are hilariously overqualified to receive at this point, and the overzealous and continued infatuation with some unnecessary Israeli ambitions. The U.S. is often angry enough about being proven wrong, but all the more so irate with Prime Minister Erdogan, who never misses a chance to stand at a podium and remind the world of this fact, sometimes for hours on end. And, how dare Turkey choose a non-NATO missile system anyway? Who cares if it was on sale, or if someone had a coupon? Also of course, came the most recent revelations of Turkish intelligence tipping off Iran to the presence of some spies. Just another instance where Turkey and the U.S. locked horns over their own interests and the relationship became irritated as a result.

The truth is, the U.S. sees an alliance with Turkey as an alliance with many other Middle Eastern nations they feel they can mostly live without. A relationship with Turkey for them is a luxury, not a necessity. They have enough problems of their own. The U.S. prefers to call on Turkey for support when they need it, and not pick up the phone when Turkey could use some assistance on a vital matter of its own. For some groups in the U.S., Turkey is little more than a dot on a map.

Significant

The problem with this thinking is; at 783, 562 square kilometers, Turkey is quite a very large and significant “dot.” Home to 75 million people, Turkey is, against all the odds, the most advanced democracy in the Islamic world. Turkey borders Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all three nations with vital roles to play in U.S. Middle East policy. A large amount of all aid to the U.S.-supported Syrian opposition flows through Turkey. Many of the moderate elements of the Syrian rebellion, the ones Turkey rightfully insisted the U.S. and others support in order to achieve a victory and a more lasting peace, are headquartered in Turkey. Turkey has historically close relations with Iran and can certainly play a vital role in any final settlement between the Persians and the West. And although the U.S. has found Iraq to be nothing but a political and military quagmire, Turkey has perhaps surprisingly found a large number of friends and areas of investments there. Turkey has proven successful at forging cooperation and identifying common ground with all of the surrounding nations. The outlook on foreign policy and regional diplomacy of these two nations could not be more different at the moment. While the U.S. prefers to use drones, the Turks prefer to use phones.

Despite their geopolitical differences, one area Turkey and the U.S. should have been able to reach detente involves trade. This appears to not have fully happened yet, despite recent trade agreements between the two. Turkish exports to the U.S. grew by 24 percent last year. Turkish imports from the U.S. grew by 39 percent. While these numbers sound impressive, and are certainly headed in a positive direction, overall trade in 2011 was the highest level on record, yet only reached $19.9 billion. Turkey is a G-20 nation with a vast and diverse economy. Trade of this amount does not show strength in economic relations between the two nations, but rather a weakness. Trade for instance between the U.S. and other similar sized economies such as that of Brazil is approximately 250 percent times greater. The gap between $19.9 billion and nearly $50 billion in trade with other similar nations is no small difference. With an annual GDP of $786 billion, a stable, Western oriented, Turkey can serve as a growing market for American goods.

In truth, the United States needs a deeper relationship with Turkey more than they like to admit. There are very few nations in the Middle East they can even attempt to call reliable partners, and Turkey has consistently been one of them. No better reminder came than just recently, when President Obama was walking the tightrope of his “red line” earlier this year, Turkey was the only nation solidly in his corner, right up to the moment he fell off (or threw himself off). On geopolitics, economics, and a variety of other issues, positive relations with Turkey are essential to core U.S. interests. The sooner this is realized in Washington, the better for both nations. From the Turkish position, it will be important to put aside past differences and dial down the rhetoric, both publicly and privately, but this is a minor concern. For the U.S., the solution to the rift is simple: Humility. A humble effort to put aside the arrogant ways of their recent past, and a focus on a true and meaningful friendship with substantive steps on areas of common interest will see their own goals move within reach. No one likes to be wrong as much as they have been, and even worse, no one likes to admit it. No one especially likes to have Prime Minister Erdogan explain it to them song and verse so frequently. But the truth remains. Whether the friendship does or not will be the decision of the U.S. as they develop, and hopefully mature, their policy decisions in the coming months and years.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.