“She’s going to talk primarily about the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship and talk about the fact that it is a good, strong relationship,” claimed State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in his daily briefing to the press Monday. “She” is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the “talk” will happen on her trip to Turkey later this week; and that “strong relationship” is in trouble. The Turks have recently re-learned that they can influence America’s decision-makers and policies, and they’re going to use that power again.
Last month, the Turks and their friends in the administration defeated Nancy Pelosi, a determined, commanding speaker of the House. The passage of a resolution that would label the 1915 killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as “genocide” was postponed indefinitely. Pelosi’s friends on the Democratic side of the House were kind enough to save her from even greater embarrassment: The sponsors asked her to delay the vote—and she agreed.
This was a political blunder. The speaker, as committed as anyone to passing the symbolic legislation, was humiliated by an even stronger and no less committed Turkish lobby. However—as often happens with acts of foolishness committed by Congress—the price will be paid by another branch of government, the executive. The check will be submitted later this week to its senior representative, Secretary Rice. A week later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit an even higher authority, President George Bush, with the same purpose.
America lost twice in this congressional battle of political will—by losing the chance to gain the high moral ground by recognizing the Armenian tragedy and by angering an important ally. Turkey was able to benefit twice: It defeated the bill, but it was also handed an excuse to get angry by its earlier passage through the House foreign affairs committee. Now it can feel justified for its somewhat vindictive mood.
America, as a Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed just last week, is not the hottest political commodity in Ankara these days. “[N]egative views of the United States are indeed widespread and growing in Turkey,” the study concluded. “Only 14% [of Turks] think the U.S. considers the interests of countries like Turkey when making foreign policy decisions,” the study found. Ankara’s demand that Washington increase its efforts to curb a wave of terror that originates in the Kurdish part of Iraq provides the U.S. administration with the perfect opportunity to show that it does “consider the interests of countries like Turkey.”
The strategic relationship between Turkey and the United States has a long and complicated history. However, Turkey’s importance to Washington can be easily, if somewhat simplistically, summed up in a slogan borrowed from the world of real estate: location, location, location.
Turkey is a bridge that connects parts of the former Soviet bloc to Europe and the oil of the East with the needs of the West; it is a neighbor to Syria and Iran and to the still-struggling Iraq; it is a candidate for European Union membership that is also well-connected to the countries of Central Asia. It is a former empire, with all the pride and tradition of regional responsibility that involves. And it’s a moderate, democratic, Muslim country. Turkey—all things considered—is almost too good to be true.
But it now has a problem, which happens to come from an area controlled by the United States, namely Iraq. The PKK, a Kurdish terror group dedicated to a radically separatist cause, is harassing and killing Turkish soldiers and citizens, and Turkey wants it to stop. In the past couple of weeks, Turkey has muttered threats of invasion, while maintaining talks with American and Iraqi leaders. But talk will not be enough. Washington will have to do something about the PKK.
The problem is that the Iraqi government can make promises, but it can’t deliver on them in the difficult northern terrain that’s controlled by the Kurds. America might be able to do more, but it is reluctant to use its already strained forces, and it is reasonably afraid of destabilizing the only region in Iraq that has been relatively calm all along.
The Pentagon isn’t happy with Turkey, which could have been far more helpful in 2003 and since. Diplomats are also worried, as they see the Islamist government moving away from the West and toward a more regionally focused strategy. Relations with Israel aren’t as good as they used to be. Commerce with Syria is well-established. Discussions with Iran are frequent—though Turkey has no desire to hand Tehran a victory. Ankara can even maneuver between the United States and Russia—not that Turkey wants to help Russia, a longtime nemesis.
Turkey, it seems, has more leverage over the United States than the other way around. It can eliminate crucial supply lines for American forces in Iraq. It can invade Iraq. It can destabilize it. These threats were all used by the U.S. administration—backed up by high-ranking military commanders—to persuade Congress to back down on Armenian genocide. These same threats will be now used on the administration and, even more so, against reluctant CENTCOM officials, to make them invest more effort in solving the problem of the PKK attacks.
Iraq is your fault, anyway, the Turks say. They were better off with Saddam Hussein’s regime—or, at least, that’s what they now claim. Turkey was willing to stay on the sidelines while the United States was messing with the region, but they will not be the ones to pay the price. Not for a country that almost passed a bill condemning their actions nearly 100 years ago.
So, Turkey successfully used its leverage against Pelosi last month, and now—angrier but also more confident in its power to curb American will—it is embarking on another such journey. Presumably, it still needs the United States to deter its powerful neighbors against possible aggression. But if Turkey was threatened by Iran or pressured by Russia, does anyone believe that America would let it fall? Turkey knows that Washington can’t afford such a scenario, and Washington knows that Turkey knows it. Through the Middle East and the world, the power of the weaker party is working against countries allied with the United States. It is the not-so-subtle threat of “do what I want or I will fall”—or, in the case of Turkey, jump.