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Menon sees U.S.-Turkish relations at a serious crossroads

Rajan Menon

A new study conducted by Rajan Menon, professor and interim chair of Lehigh’s international relations department and Fellow at the New America Foundation, concludes that the long-standing alliance between the United States and Turkey is not only dramatically eroded, but is being ignored by both countries.

“This relationship, which has endured since the 1947 Truman Doctrine and has contributed to the security of both countries, is now in serious trouble,” says Menon, who recently published the findings in a paper he co-authored with S. Enders Wimbush, director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.

Menon and Wimbush’s assessment grew out of a two-day workshop in early February that was convened by the Hudson Institute and supported, in part, by the Smith Richardson Foundation. In attendance were noted specialists on Turkey, Europe and international security (including Henri J. Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh, who is serving as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Washington, D.C., this semester). The experts were charged with assessing the state of America’s alliance with Turkey and determining if the U.S. is risking “losing” Turkey as a long-time and critical ally.

The scholars concurred that the most significant source of discord between the two countries is the war in Iraq, which Turkish leaders fear will lead to a breakup of Iraq and the rise of separate Kurdish state.

“This will create even greater disorder and stoke separatist sentiment in Turkey’s southeast, and may lead to an increase in paramilitary and terrorist attacks by the Kurdish separatist organization, the PKK,” Menon says.

Members of the current Bush administration, in turn, feel betrayed by the Turkish parliament’s rejection of its request to open a second front from Turkey’s territory against Saddam Hussein’s army in the run-up to the 2003 war. But, Menon says, Turkish government officials feel that participating in the war in this manner would have damaged Turkey’s security in many ways and amounted to the Bush administration requiring a reflexive support from an ally, without enabling the ally to take into account the consequence for the its own sense of interests and well being.

“More fundamentally,” he adds, “the Bush administration is preoccupied by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seems to have relegated Turkey to the back burner—or so it appears to many Turks.”

Roiling resentment against the U.S. for charging off to war without regard to the consequences for Turkey’s security is reflected across the political spectrum, Menon says.

“It is evident among elites, including the leadership of the Turkish military—arguably the country’s most influential institution—but (this view) also pervades society more generally,” says Menon, who cites opinion polls show that the predominant view of Turks has shifted from considering the U.S. as a friend, to now seeing it as a threat.

As a result, influential Turks, government officials and foreign policy experts are undergoing a strategic reassessment. Changes afoot could include the development of deeper ties with new partners such as Russia, China, Iran and Syria, and would weaken the role of the U.S., long seen as an indispensable ally.

Aggravating conditions

“What is making this situation worse is the fact that neither side is facing up to this reality of the weakened relationship, let alone taking serious remedial measures, nor even making concerted efforts to understand the new political currents within each other’s societies,” Menon says.

Menon and Wimbush agree that, if this neglect continues, the price paid by both sides will be steep.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that Washington and Ankara see the world and define their interests in divergent ways,” they write in their report. “If allowed to continue, this trend could well undo the alliance.”

The good news, they say, is that there is still time to act, providing senior leaders on both sides move with dispatch to repair their relationship, and to join forces against multiple and unfamiliar threats—not least those posed by terrorism.”

The five-point plan the scholars developed offers the following recommendations:

• Recognize that its alliance with Turkey could be in jeopardy.

• Establish high-level joint working groups that are tasked with proposing concrete measures to safeguard the alliance and to ensure its relevance for the post-Cold War world.

• Make Turkey a central partner in fashioning a political settlement in Iraq and engage in regular consultations and joint planning to this end.

• Work with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and the Turkish leadership to prevent the dispute over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq from precipitating open warfare and possible Turkish intervention, which could further dent America’s alliance with Turkey.

• Fashion a “grand bargain” between the KRG and Turkey that includes specific and enforceable provisions to assure the KRG that Turkey will not invade Iraqi Kurdistan. This step will serve to forestall the possibility of an independent Kurdish state, and will guarantee Turkey that the KRG will not permit the PKK to use northern Iraq as a base of operations.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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