In March 1947, President Harry Truman went before Congress to warn that unless the United States provided military and economic aid to Turkey and Greece, America's strategic position in the Middle East would be seriously damaged. This policy became known as the Truman Doctrine, and it set the stage for the Cold War .that began in 1948.
For over sixty years, Turkey remained a close ally of the United States. In 1952, with strong backing from Washington, it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. Turkey sent three brigades of troops to Korea to join U.S. and United Nations forces to stop North Korea's invasion of South Korea. Throughout the Cold War Ankara was a staunch supporter of American policy in Europe and the Middle East.
The political climate began to change in 2003 when a new moderate Islamist party, the AKP, won seats in parliament, a break with Turkey‘s adherence to a strictly secular orientation after its founding as a republic in 1922. Recep Tayip Erdogan, AKP's leader, became prime minister, and in 2007 the party won a large majority in parliament. Erdogan used this mandate to enact economic reforms at home and pursue a more nationalist foreign policy abroad.
Today, Turkey is engulfed in serious security problems. The Washington Post underscored the danger in a Feb. 21 report from Istanbul: "Turkey is confronting what amounts to a strategic nightmare as bombs explode in its cities, its enemies encroach on its borders, and its allies seemingly snub its demands."
How could this happen to a NATO ally and key player in the Middle East? One reason is that Erdogan and the AKP overplayed their hand in relations with Washington amd Moscow, as well as their Arab neighbors. Erdogan felt confident, after Barack Obama encouraged what became known as the Arab Spring and suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down, that Obama would follow through with major support for Syrian groups agitating for freedom. His expectations were dashed when Obama declined to use military forces in Syria.
In November, Turkey compounded its strategic problems when it shot down a Russian fighter jet that flew over its territory on a bombing mission in Syria. It acted without consulting allies, and Moscow retaliated by shutting off trade with Turkey and stationing a squadron of fighter jets on Turkey's eastern border. Erdogan's relations with Washington are strained because of U.S. support of Kurdish fighters in Syria, which Erdogan views as supporting independence pressure within Turkey's large Kurdish minority to the southeast.
The problem for U.S. foreign policy is that Erdogan is unwilling to follow the U.S. lead in dealing with Middle East issues. For over sixty years, Ankara supported U.S. policies in dealing with Moscow and the Middle East; but that changed significantly in 2003 when public pressure in Turkey forced parliament to resist U.S. pressure to permit its troops to use Turkey's territory to invade northern Iraq. Public opinion remains strongly anti-American, and Erdogan uses this to maintain his power at home.
Washington has two choices, in my view, in dealing with Turkey. It can use economic and political pressure to persuade Erdogan to change his policies and adjust to U.S. leadership in the Middle East. Or, it could decide, for its own strategic reasons, to intervene in the northern part of Syria along the Turkish border, in order to provide a safe-haven for Syrian refugees and ensure that Assad's forces do not move to Turkey's border.
The first choice risks driving Turkey further into isolation and spurring even greater distrust of Washington. The second choice risks a confrontation with Moscow, whose forces are supporting Assad. The answer may have to wait until after the November election. But will Assad and Erdogan, as well as Vladimir Putin, wait?
File last modified on Monday, 29-FEB-2015 10:04 AM EST