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Turkey Basting

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In a piece up at the American Interest, “Terrible Twins: Turkey, Brazil and the Future of American Foreign Policy,” Walter Russell Mead takes aim at the government of Recep Erdo?an in Turkey. Here’s a key passage:

the strong reaction in Turkey to the Israeli interception of a convoy organized by Turkish groups with aid for Gaza underlines the possibility that Turkey is moving decisively away from its longtime partnership with the United States.

As it happens, I was in Turkey the day of the flotilla events and was able to take some measure of the local reaction, discussing it with a number of local observers whose opinions I value. There is good reason to be concerned about relations between Turkey and the United States. At one point, Turkey was the essential NATO ally of the United States for Middle East issues. The U.S. Air Force base at ?ncerlik has been a key national-security asset, and there are few armed forces in the world with which the U.S. has had deeper and more stable relations than those of Turkey—though that very fact may be an irritant in the current environment. There is a problem in U.S.-Turkish relations; it requires serious study and consideration. But Mead’s analysis is simply obtuse. Successful military alliances are built on the basis of shared interests and generally shared perceptions of threat. During the Cold War, those interests and threats could be easily defined. After the Cold War, the United States has looked to a number of different ties for a redefinition of the relationship, none of them particularly successful.

I still remember being in Istanbul during the OSCE summit in 1999. Bill Clinton was in town, mobbed everywhere and viewed as a rock star. I walked through bazaars and found stalls in which his picture was displayed. He was, a friend assured me, far more popular with the people than any senior Turkish politician. In the commercial world, American icons were everywhere. This was a golden era in U.S.-Turkish relations. Then George W. Bush arrived on the scene, touting policies uncritically embraced by Mead, with Kriegslust directed against Iraq at the top of the agenda. Turkish leaders counseled aggressively against this war and warned about negative consequences sure to flow from it. Turkey also expressed deeply held reservations about the creation of a Kurdish state and the empowerment of Kurdish nationalist groups that had long presented a painful terrorist threat to Turkey. These concerns fell on deaf ears with the Bush team. So the pushback started with U.S. indifference towards Turkey’s own perceived national-security interests. Looking back on the situation now, Turkey’s warnings were largely well taken, and their concern about a revitalization of Kurdish terrorism also proved to be well founded. So which partner bears primary responsibility for damage to the relationship?

Mead’s writing reveals his chronic inability to differentiate between United States and Israeli security concerns. Writing in the American Conservative, the ever astute Daniel Larison calls Mead on his intellectual sloppiness:

It seems fair to say that Mead has completely misread the situation. Why has there been a “strong reaction” to the raid on the aid flotilla? It isn’t because Turkey is “moving decisively away from its longtime partnership with the United States,” and it isn’t even because the AKP government is bent on undermining the relationship with Israel. There has been a strong reaction because eight Turkish citizens were killed on a Turkish-flagged civilian ship in international waters by the armed forces of its ostensible ally while on a basically peaceful aid mission. Name me a government that would not have a strong reaction to such an episode. For that matter, the aid mission was an effort to breach an inhumane blockade that probably cannot be legally justified. If partnering with the U.S. means ignoring gross, violent provocations against its citizens, no democratic government in the world would be able to maintain such a partnership for very long.

Andrew Sullivan drives this same point home:

why is Israel the same as the US? It is only if one assumes that the US supports everything and anything Israel does that you can make this kind of leap. And the Obama promise – which Netanyahu has done his damnedest to destroy – was precisely to re-establish the US as some kind of honest broker in the Mideast.

There are plenty of complex and difficult issues between the United States and Turkey now. Our military relationship needs a rethink in light of the obvious transformation of the Turkish state into a new model of democracy in which the military’s role of suretyship has been brought to a close. Friction has arisen with respect to Iran, particularly on nuclear power issues—although the Turkish position is at least rhetorically capable of being harmonized with the American one. But Mead’s views are dangerously facile and do not present an adequate basis for assessment of the relationship. Repairing the current damaged relationship has to start with identifying shared national-security interests. This is not an impossible task, but it needs to start with healthy respect for Turkish democracy and the choices of the Turkish people. That element has been missing for too long.

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