US-Turkey: A Partnership on Pendulum

Turkey and US can be considered as staunch allies despite several periods overshadowed by suspicions, political interventions and some collusion of interests. The relationship, firmly embodied in the alliance in NATO, has functioned largely smoothly during the Cold War. In the eyes of US, Turkey has been considered as a trustable flank country. Turkey, despite at times having justified suspicion for imperialistic and interventionist intentions attributed to US, due to its economic shortcomings and its crave for heavy military build-up has seen in US a strategic ally. The adjectives used by US Administrations to define partnership such as “strategic”, “special” “model” has been carefully examined in Turkey and used for domestic political consumption by several Turkish governments to emphasize their “everlasting achievements” in international fora.

The relations have somewhat changed and lost its glamour primarily with the end of Cold War. Turkish leaders, President Turgut Özal especially, tried to keep Turkey’s profile high by overeagerly involving Turkey in 1. Gulf War. However, this cooperation has not delivered any significant political or economic outcome to Turkey, which led many to question the merits of the partnership. The deepening economic crisis reigning in 1990’s had caused political instability which pushed Turkey more to the edge of insignificance. However, the real crux took place before the II. Gulf War. Due to Turkey’s accustomed role to accept US demands without causing trouble, US Administration has taken for granted the positive decision of the Turkish parliament on permitting US troops to use Turkish territory to enter Iraq. However, overwhelming anti-war sentiments and demonstrations in the street have avoided newly elected AKP to push its deputies for a favourable decision. The decision of the Turkish Parliament on 3 March 2003 have shocked Bush Administration and Neo-Conservatives which already made all logistical preparations to enter Iraq from the North. In the aftermath of this decision, Bush Administration has shown every sign of discontent and distrust to the Turkish government. However, as AKP consolidated its domestic support, Turkey achieved high economic growth and increased its presence in its neighbourhood, Bush Administration started to change its position and the climate somewhat softened. Increasing cooperation between two countries in combat against PKK in Iraqi territory could be shown as a clear demonstration of “rapprochement” in the last years of Bush Administration.

When Barack Obama climb to power in 2009 with a foreign policy based more on multilateralism and change of focus to the East, the mutual perceptions were still apart from each other. Obama’s gesture to put Turkey at the beginning of its presidency send very strong signals to Turkish Government that US is aiming to restore relations. After the visit, positive perception of US in Turkish public opinion started to climb up from its lowest levels in Bush era.

However, Turkey’s ever more eagerness to play a “master” role especially in its neighbourhood created some disgruntlement in US. Turkish Government’s increasing criticism on Israel’s atrocities to Palestinians, climaxing in the infamous “Davos Summit” and “Gaza flotilla” incidents, have strained the relations as US became more worried about Israel’s isolation. Turkey’s achievement of brokering a last minute deal with Iran on nuclear issues and its veto in UNSC against the sanctions have further upset the US Administration. Despite this downturns Turkey and US have managed to reconcile their differences in time. Turkey’s decision to accept instalment of NATO Missile Defence System in Malatya has become a turning point. Due to the declining role of America in international economy and the nature of “Arab Spring” which emerges not from secretive intergovernmental conspiracies but the justified frustrations and demands of the people, US felt required to look for more intense policy coordination with the kingpins in the region. Unfolding events in Egypt, Syria and Libya underlined the significance of Turkey’s soft power in the region as a democracy (despite several and worrisome shortcomings) run by a conservative government. Egypt going under a major regime overhaul, Iran positioned as hostile, Israel isolated, Russia getting increasingly suspicious and EU less effective, US felt obliged to recalibrate its policy towards Turkey. On the other hand, as EU target looking more distant, Iran becoming more of a rival due to differences in viewing the future of Syria and NATO Missile Defence System and existing bad-blood with Israel, US has been reinstated as the most important strategic ally for Turkey. Variances of opinion on how to stop Iran’s nuclear aims, relations with Israel, recognition of Palestine have become to be seen just as differences between friends to be discussed about rather than excuses to pick quarrel on.

As US is getting closer to a Presidential election in 2012, Turkey will be watching carefully the campaigns of presidential candidates and try to weigh the vantage points of a change in US Administration. Although the presidential race seems to be more about economics rather than national security, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and security of Israel are the issues that Republicans would target Obama Administration. It would be fair to expect that a republican president might abandon Obama’s multilateral approach and push for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities or turn a blind eye to an Israeli operation. This will put the region into a debacle where it would be impossible for every actor including Turkey to foresee its future role. It would be difficult for Turkey to choose sides in such a conundrum. The self-fulfilling prophecy that Turkey is becoming an unreliable country run by an Islamic Government with hostile attitude to US interests might even gain more strength in the republican circles.

On the other hand, the ever closer relations and right minded approach shown by the Obama Administration make Turkey to view Obama as a more favourable candidate. Although a possible Congress decision to recognize alleged Armenian Genocide might off-track the relations, Obama is to be seen as a better candidate to maintain positive evolvement in the relations. A more courageous Obama Administration in its second term, putting more pressure on Israel on Middle East Peace Process (if it still exists until then) would receive a warmer reception from Turkey. Obama’s reluctance to a military solution to Iran would create a bigger playground for Turkish diplomacy. In short, the elections in US will have important ramifications on Turkey’s future role in the region.

Sinan Kara

Please cite this article as follows:

Kara, Sinan (March, 2012), “US-Turkey: A Partnership on Pendulum”, Vol. I, Issue 1,  pp.12-14,  Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London: ResearchTurkey (



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