Reaffirming the U.S.-Turkey Relationship

The European Union (EU) has decided to open negotiations with Turkey and advance the country’s ambition of becoming an EU member. This is good news for the United States, which stands to benefit from Turkey’s accession. But as Turkey looks increasingly to Brussels, the United States should reaffirm its relationship with its longstanding ally.

Turkey, with one foot in Europe and another in Asia Minor, is an ally in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and partner in the war on terrorism. Turkey’s economy has seen more than 16 percent growth in the last two years. The country also serves as an important example of the compatibility of democracy and secular Islam.

In recent decades, Turkey has been a valuable strategic ally for the United States. Turkey played an important role in the Cold War and joined the Allied coalition in the Gulf War. Turkey maintains NATO’s largest standing army and will assume leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for the second time in February 2005.

However, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has lost the strength and warmth of the past. The Iraq War – the single most explosive issue – has been terribly unpopular among the Turkish public= The Turkish parliament voted to disallow the U.S. military to launch the invasion of Iraq, a border country, from Turkish soil. In November 2004, the chairman of the parliamentary human rights commission called U.S. activity in Iraq “genocide.” The Iraq War also heightened concerns in Turkey that its own Kurdish population will reinvigorate efforts for an independent homeland.

In fact, the Turks have often felt that the United States does not appreciate Turkey or recognize its interests, and are concerned that it will depart Iraq and leave an independent Kurdistan. They have memories of 1991, when they suffered economically by abiding by UN sanctions on Iraq. They also remember the 1960s, when they agreed to host Atlas missiles and risk provoking the Soviet Union, only to see the United States walk away as a trade-off following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now the United States has a chance to fortify its relationship with Turkey. The Bush administration must find ways to do this that do not further aggravate Turkish public opinion or visibly interfere in the accession question. The administration has several opportunities before it.

First, the United States should consult closely with the Turks on the Iraq issue to reduce tensions and secure their constructive participation. The United States might consider making more reconstruction contracts available to Turkish companies. The United States should also be sensitive to Turkish concerns about the presence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq, from where it has staged attacks on Turkey.

Second, as Turkey moves closer to becoming a member of the EU, the path will become increasingly demanding. The United States can quietly support Turkey in meeting the EU’s requirements for democratic reform, for example, by supporting the work of Turkish non-governmental organizations addressing these challenges.

Third, the United States can continue to help Turkey develop its economy and ease the pain that will undoubtedly accompany the process of integrating with the EU. Turkey continues to struggle with erratic economic growth, high inflation and low foreign direct investment. More opportunities for U.S. investment in the country will emerge as banking regulations and other conditions improve through the accession process. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which helps U.S. businesses invest overseas, can be helpful here.

Fourth, the United States must strengthen the consultative process with Turkey. The countries had become so confident in their relationship that they became complacent about maintaining it. It is important for U.S. and Turkish officials to get together to discuss major issues.

Furthermore, the Bush administration must recognize that consultation takes work. In the lead up to the Gulf War, Secretary of State James A. Baker III made three trips to Ankara. In contrast, Secretary of State Colin Powell did not visit Turkey once in the lead up to the 2003 invasion.

Finally, the United States must establish mechanisms to mitigate problems that might arise within the U.S.-EU-Turkey relationship. A United States that is close with both the EU and Turkey can advance the interests of all parties.

Nicole Mlade is Senior Policy Analyst for National Security at the Center for American Progress.

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