Perhaps a charm offensive

A cursory internet surfer may stumble upon hundreds of articles and comments on the poor state of current relations between Turkey and the United States. Most of these address the unfulfilled expectations of the American side, especially following the US intervention in Iraq. More recent ones deal with the public mood in Turkey, which is not at all receptive to the policies of the Bush administration. Those who can read Turkish can also come across similar criticism in Turkish press columns.

But does this really reflect the current state of relations between the two countries? Has it really hit rock bottom? My short answer is, no. Except for some minor points of friction and unfortunate instances, state-to-state relations are not that bad, interests are complementary, policies coincide, and Turkey and the US need each other more than ever.

If nothing else, the convening of the NATO conference in Istanbul in June 2004, Bush’s visit to Ankara, and the inclusion of Turkey in Secretary of State Rice’s first tour of Europe and the Middle East prove that mutual relations have not been sacrificed to the media.

It seems that both the media and the public, and in some instances politicians on either side, expect more than the other can deliver. Overburdened with culturalist assumptions and neo-conservative designs, the Americans tend to become disillusioned much more easily with the current government, due to its Islamic roots, than with previous ones. On the other hand, Turks, having once again sunk into their own nationalist quagmire, are unable to grasp the realities of the world surrounding them.

If Turkey had a different type of government with fewer Islamic credentials, the US reaction to the perceived unfavorable decision of the Turkish Parliament in March 2003 to the stationing of troops probably would have been more conciliatory. Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iran would also be seen from a different angle. And if nationalist propaganda did not dominate public opinion, the Turks would have seen the American presence in Iraq as a factor contributing to the stability and integrity of the country even after the ill-designed intervention.

US-Turkish relations have constantly been blurred with misperceptions. Seen from the Turkish perspective, there is no single issue that may have led to friction between the two countries. Turks are of course worried about the reluctance of the Americans to collaborate against the PKK threat in northern Iraq. They still blame the Bush administration for its short-sightedness regarding the consequences of the intervention in Iraq. Indeed, Turks are concerned with the fate of that country. They are worried about the consequences of a failed non-unitary Iraq. The pictures of systematic torture in Abu Ghraib have troubled the Turkish population.

However, when it comes to the overall policy framework, Turkey is behind the US grand strategy and even instrumental in initiating it. Turkey, for instance, was one of the first countries endorsing the Greater Middle East initiative. Speaking at Bourgas Free University, Bulgaria, on May 12, 2003, Foreign Minister Gul "strongly urge(d) all the related parties to carefully examine this initiative and to candidly work on it". During the foreign ministers meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran on May 28, 2003, Minister Gul once more called on Muslim leaders to "first put our house in order".

Both Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan have furthered this idea at various national and international forums, and Turkey’s eagerness was reciprocated in the Sea Island G8 Summit with a non-governmental co-chair seat at the newly created Democracy Assistance Dialogue mechanism.

Turkey was again among the first countries to announce its wish to participate in the multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, and has subsequently assumed command of that force (ISAF) twice. Both instances were hailed by the US administration as demonstrations of the solidity of the US-Turkey strategic partnership and of Turkey’s resolve to combat terrorism.

Moreover, Turkey and the US have a common interest in boosting stability in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Although it is usually taken for granted, one should not forget that without Turkey’s good will the conflicts in the Caucasus are unlikely to be solved. Needless to say, Turkey with its multicultural and multi-ethnic credentials has a lot to offer to the harmonization of civilizations.

But Turkey cannot fulfill all of the American public’s expectations and cannot be held accountable for the failure of American neo-conservative assumptions. Despite the long history of mutual relations and American assistance, at the end of the day Turkey is a sovereign country with a proud history, ever diminishing imperial reflexes, and national interests. Not all the interests of the country correspond to neo-conservative designs. Turkey cannot consent to everything American.

Aligning Turkey and the Turks with anti-Americanism cannot and will not lead to the normalization of relations. Turkey is a test case for the success of American policies in gaining the hearts and minds of the friendly countries in this region. If the Turks, with a long history of almost unilaterally beneficial relations, are against US policies, there should be a reason to question and amend these policies.

As Graham Fuller aptly put in the LA Times, "right now, opposition to US policies is the nearest thing to a national consensus in Turkey. Major elements across the political spectrum–Turkey’s strong secularists, nationalists, Kemalists and leftists– are even more harshly critical of Washington than the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Efforts by Washington to intimidate a popular, representative Turkish government or to bring it in line with US government policies will almost surely backfire".

Instead, the US might consider launching a charm offensive. There are plenty of opportunities available to change the perception of Turks about the current American administration. Primary among them is the Cyprus problem, which has defied every attempt at settlement for 50 odd years. A diplomatic intervention in the direction of the empowerment of Turkish Cypriots as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict would definitely have an enormous positive impact on Turkish public opinion.