US foreign policy needs to be more rational
In the last seven decades, since the beginning of the strategic relations between Turkey and the U.S., there have been different tensions and crises between the two countries. Observers and historians of Turkish-American relations have defined some of these crises as “turning points” and “critical junctures” that significantly affected the general trajectory of bilateral ties.
Although some of these crises were resolved amicably between the two NATO allies, some others have been merely “handled” and the root causes of the problems were not dealt with. For instance, the rise of anti-Americanism in Turkey in the 1960s was partly a result of declining trust in the U.S. throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. The disputes over the “status of force” agreements, the U-2 spy plane incident, the Cuban missile crisis, the withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Lyndon B. Johnson’s letter all contributed to the rise of skepticism about the U.S. among the Turkish public.
None of these issues were resolved in a way that would respond to the question marks in the minds of the Turkish people and calm their concerns about the state of the alliance relationship. The U.S. side underestimated the potential social aftershocks of these political and military crises between the two countries. It was not aware of how attentive the Turkish public was getting to the foreign policy of the country and how effective they can become to constrain and shape the behavior of Turkey’s foreign policymakers.
When an arms embargo was placed on Turkey in the 1970s, contrary to the expectations of some U.S. foreign policymakers, the Turkish side responded by closing the U.S. bases in Turkey, which generated a significant strategic loss amid the Cold War.
After the end of the Cold War, every time the U.S. acted against the spirit of the “strategic partnership” the reaction of the Turkish people continue to grow. The undeclared arms embargoes of the 1990s, the resolutions against Turkey in the U.S. Congress and many other actions today led to the emergence of a Turkish public opinion that is extremely skeptical of the U.S. foreign policy objectives.
In the last two weeks, following the first phone call between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, we witnessed another moment in bilateral relations that will be considered a “critical juncture.” U.S. support for the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) had already seen anti-U.S. reaction rise in Turkey, where the PKK terror has always been an issue that crosses party and ideological boundaries.
Terrorist attacks by these groups cost the lives of more than 40,000 people in Turkey and traumatized many others. The U.S., just like in previous instances, exhibited a total disregard for the reaction of the Turkish people when it started to arm and train the YPG so that it can fight against Daesh.
With the end of Daesh’s territorial dominance, when the Turkish public and policymakers asked questions about the U.S. “exit strategy” on its relations with the YPG, there was no satisfactory answer from the authorities. In the absence of any meaningful support for Turkey in its fight against terrorism, the country took the initiative and decided to use hard power where it deems it necessary. Turkish policymakers decided to act unilaterally to take steps to protect their own citizens.
Turkish security forces organized two different operations in Syria in the last two years to provide border security and drive terrorist groups away from its borders. When President Erdoğan started to signal a potential operation east of the Euphrates, given the increased capacity building of a terrorist group in the area following the end of its fight against Daesh, many in the U.S. one more time underestimated Turkish public and policymakers’ commitment to deal with this threat
The lack of understanding shown by some U.S. policymakers aside, we have witnessed a more serious problem among some observers of Turkish-American relations and U.S. foreign policy. The opposition to the Turkish operation demonstrated a lack of long-term strategic approach in regards to the region from some of these observers.
Instead of providing a perspective to achieve long-term stability and security in the region, they endorsed continuous support for a terrorist group with several thousand members. Later when the criticism against Turkey rose, we have seen that in addition to a lack of understanding there was an intentional ignorance of the facts on the ground. Some started to present the YPG as the representatives of all Kurdish people.
Others used the term “ethnic cleansing,” a word they barely used against the Syrian regime, to describe Turkey’s operation. Others claimed that Turkey’s real goal was to extend its territories. There are other examples of this as well. Opposition to the Turkish operation, with very irresponsible statements by some officials in the U.S. in regards to Turkey, while two governments were trying to resolve the issue in a way that would respond to the national security concerns of Turkey, only further stressed the alliance.
The leaks by some officers in the field to main U.S. news outlets, while revealing the highly illegitmate cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG, appear to target the successful completion of the negotiations.
Of course, the chaotic two weeks, as well as the statements and articles written and presented by former and current officials, have left a serious dent in relations. Although there is an agreement between the two countries, following the serious efforts by the governments on both sides, the damage must be handled by the U.S. authorities, if they want to continue the strategic partnership with Turkey.
The continuation of this attitude towards Turkey is not making the Turks less sensitive to it but generating an accumulated grievance against the U.S. This can make it extremely difficult for foreign policymakers to pursue a working relationship with the U.S. in the coming years.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on October 21, 2019.