How Do You Say "Frenemy" in Turkish?

Meet America's new rival in the Middle East.

Recently, my colleague and good friend, Charles Kupchan, published a book called How Enemies Become Friends. In it, he argues that diplomatic engagement is decisive in transforming relations between adversaries. It is an interesting read, and the book has received some terrific reviews. Charlie might want to follow up with a new book called How Friends Become Frenemies. He can use the United States and Turkey as his primary case study.

It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.

This reality has been driven home by Turkey's angry response to Israel's interdiction of the Istanbul-organized flotilla of ships that tried Monday to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After Israel's attempts to halt the vessels resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to Israel's actions as "murder conducted by a state." The Turkish government also spearheaded efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a harsh rebuke of Israel.

Monday's events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara's security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.

This revelation comes despite the hopes of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose inauguration was greeted with a sigh of relief along both the Potomac and the Bosphorus. Officials in both countries hoped that the Obama administration's international approach, which emphasized diplomatic engagement, multilateralism, and regional stability, would mesh nicely with that of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. The White House made it clear from the beginning that Turkey was a priority for Obama, who raised the idea of a "model partnership" between the two countries. Turkey, the theory went, had a set of attributes and assets that it could bring to bear to help the United States achieve its interests in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Naturally, as a longtime U.S. ally, Turkey was thought to share America's interests in these regions. That was the thinking, anyway.

A little more than a year after Obama addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Washington seems caught between its attempts to advance this model partnership, and recognition of the reality that Ankara has moved on. This desire to restore close relations with Turkey is partially based on a rose-tinted view of the alliance's glory days; even then, the relationship was often quite difficult, buffeted by Turkey's troubled relations with Greece, Ankara's invasion of Cyprus, and the Armenian-American community's calls for recognition of the 1915 massacres as genocide. Back then, Turkey was a fractious junior partner in the global chess game with the Soviets. Today, Turkey is all grown up, sporting the 16th largest economy in the world, and is coming into its own diplomatically.

Nowhere is Turkey asserting itself more than in the Middle East, where it has gone from a tepid observer to an influential player in eight short years. In the abstract, Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues.

For the first time in its history, Ankara has chosen sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demanding that Israel take steps to ease the blockade of Gaza or risk unspecified "consequences." Well before the recent crisis, the Turks had positioned themselves as thinly veiled advocates for Hamas, which has long been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. In public statements, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has compared Turkey's Islamists and Hamas. Implicit in these declarations is a parallel to Erdogan's own Justice and Development Party, whose predecessors were repeatedly banned from politics.

This parallel is rather odd. Turkey's Islamists always sought to process their grievances peacefully, while the Islamic Resistance Movement -- Hamas's actual name -- has a history of violence. Ankara's warm embrace of Hamas has not only angered the Israelis, but other U.S. regional allies including Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia.

Even in Afghanistan, there's less to Turkey's vaunted cooperation than meets the eye. Turkey was the first ally to offer troops to U.S. efforts there in 2001, and more recently, it has doubled its contingent of soldiers to almost 1,700. However, Ankara has consistently -- like other NATO allies -- refused to throw these forces into the fight, even after the Obama administration's entreaties to do more as part of the Afghan "surge."

Ankara also took a lot of heat from George W. Bush's administration for its good relations with the Syrian regime, though the United States eventually reconciled itself to the logic of Turkey's interests in its southern neighbor. Turkey sees its ties with Syria as a hedge against Kurdish nationalism, believing that brisk cross-border trade will make everyone -- Turks, Kurds, and Syrians -- richer, happier, and less suspicious of one another. The close diplomatic ties have an added benefit for Washington: They give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad someone to talk to other than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

That's the theory, anyway. But Ankara and Washington may well end up on opposite sides when it comes to the Assad regime. The Turks have been noticeably quiet about U.S. and Israeli allegations that Syria has either transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah or trained Hezbollah fighters to use them in Syria. What will the Turks do if Israel launches a preventive strike against those missiles, now believed to be on the Syrian side of the border near the Bekaa Valley -- or if the Israel Defense Forces take the fight to Lebanon, where there are 367 Turkish soldiers serving in the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Lebanon? Whatever the exact scenario, conflict along Israel's northern border seems increasingly likely. In that event, Washington will no doubt endorse Israel's right to self-defense -- and Ankara will not.

Perhaps the biggest issue separating the United States and Turkey is Iran. There is a full-blown controversy brewing over exactly what the Obama administration communicated to Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva before the two leaders traveled to Tehran in May. There, Lula and Erdogan hammered out a deal that would shift 1,200 kilograms of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). So far, Washington's explanation of what it did and did not tell Ankara and Brasilia is rather weak -- a perplexing lapse of communication and coordination for an administration that puts a premium on these virtues.

Regardless of the Obama administration's mistakes, the Turkish-Brazilian deal demonstrates just how far apart Washington and Ankara are on Iran. The Obama administration sees the TRR agreement as yet another Iranian effort to split Washington, its allies in Europe, the Chinese, and the Russians, thereby forestalling a new round of U.N.-mandated sanctions, all while the Iranians continue to enrich uranium. The Turks think the deal is a promising start to the painstaking task of moving Washington and Tehran toward broader negotiations.

The easy temptation is to blame creeping Islamization for Turkey's foreign-policy shift. There is no denying that there is an ideological component to much of Erdogan's rhetoric, especially when it comes to Israel. However, the prime minister is not the architect of Ankara's foreign policy; Foreign Minister Davutoglu is the man responsible for the country's new international activism. Bookish, soft-spoken and extremely smart, Davutoglu is not an Islamist. Rather, he correctly perceived the role Turkey can play in a much-changed world. The structural changes resulting from the end of the Cold War, Europe's continuing rebuff of Turkey, and the economic opportunities to the country's south, east, and north have driven Davutoglu's thinking, not the Quran. Moreover, despite the bitter political battle being played out in Turkey over the country's political trajectory, there is general agreement across the political spectrum on the direction of Turkish foreign policy. Other Turkish governments might have been more cautious about the TRR deal, but they certainly would be seeking to maintain good relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention Russia.

The Obama administration has yet to grapple with the ways the structural changes in the international system have affected U.S.-Turkey relations. All the talk about strategic cooperation, model partnership, and strategic importance cannot mask the fundamental shift at hand. The stark reality is that while Turkey and the United States are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast becoming competitors. Whereas the United States seeks to remain the predominant power in the region and, as such, wants to maintain a political order that makes it easier for Washington to achieve its goals, Turkey clearly sees things differently. The Turks are willing to bend the regional rules of the game to serve Ankara's own interests. If the resulting policies serve U.S. goals at the same time, good. If not, so be it.

Moreover, Ankara's approach has proved enormously popular in Turkey and among average Arabs. This is why Erdogan seems all too willing to discuss Turkey's newly influential role in the Middle East at even the most mundane ribbon-cutting events, from Istanbul to the Armenian border.  Indeed, it is abundantly clear that Erdogan and his party believe they benefit domestically from the position Turkey has staked out in the Middle East. Yet, it is lost on Washington that the demands of domestic Turkish politics now trump the need to maintain good relations with the United States.

Given the mythology that surrounds the relationship, the divergence between Washington and Ankara has proved difficult to accept. Once policymakers recognize what is really happening, Washington and Ankara can get on with the job of managing the decline in ties with the least possible damage. Obama's goal should be to develop relations with Turkey along the same lines the United States has with Brazil or Thailand or Malaysia. Those relations are strong in some areas, but fall short of strategic alliances. "Frenemy" might be too harsh a term for such an arrangment, but surely "model partnership" is a vast overstatement. It's time to recognize reality.



Make Them Pay

How to calculate what BP owes America.

"I'm worried to hell and back, so is everybody else," says Roland "Mac" McRae, 74, owner of the Cedar Point Fishing Pier on Alabama's Gulf Coast. We spoke by phone on May 29. His business leases time on a fishing pier located just a few hundred miles from the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, which on April 22 caught fire and sank, unleashing what is now the largest and most destructive oil spill in U.S. history.

As local fishermen stay home and business plummets, McCrae tries not to think too far ahead. "I don't even go there. All my life, I've had a little jingle in my pocket," he says. "To me, life's not worth living if you don't have a little jingle in your pocket." McRae is one of an estimated 14 million people living along the Gulf of Mexico, millions of whom are likely to be affected one way or another the oil spill. "When they finally close that well, if they can," he reflects, "the entire ecology of the Bay and the Gulf of Mexico will never be the same."

Ecology isn't the only unknown. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound and caused billions in damages, the United States is again facing a massive oil spill and a vast undetermined price tag. But this time, the rules are different. The legal system, also entering uncharted waters, must now grapple with two difficult questions in fielding the concerns of people like McRae. The first, of course, is: Who's to blame? The second is: Who will pay?

The first answer is easy; the second, not so much.

BP, of course, is taking the blame. The company was leasing the rig from Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling company, and managed operations with subcontractors such as Halliburton, when the disaster occurred. The explosion and sinking of the rig has thus far released between 18.6 million gallons and 29.5 million gallons of oil into the blue waters of the Gulf, according to the latest government estimates. On its website, BP says it "takes full responsibility for responding to the Deepwater Horizon incident"; however, the company has already attempted to share the blame with its contractors during intense questioning at a congressional hearing.

Since the Exxon Valdez disaster, a new suite of rules and regulations has supposedly made it easier for victims of oil spills to claim damages, but the new system also limits the punitive damages and payouts communities can expect. "Before, if the oil doesn't touch you, then it didn't matter how much economic losses you suffered," says David Oesting, a lead attorney on the Exxon Valdez case with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. "That's all different now."

In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, adopting some recommendations of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission that made companies liable for economic harms from a spill without a court decision. To avoid the chaos that followed the Exxon Valdez spill, when 30,000 fought for compensation in hundreds of lawsuits, the new law streamlined the process. Now, BP (along with any other parties deemed "responsible") is automatically liable and must pay for all cleanup costs and damages to natural resources, property, and revenue caused by an oil spill.

Yet the Oil Pollution Act also caps damages to $75 million for spills from vessels, or $350 million from offshore facilities (it is not clear yet which limit applies to the mobile Deepwater Horizon rig). Once this amount is exhausted, claimants may receive payments up to $1 billion per incident (spill) from something called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is financed through a tax on petroleum imported or produced in the United States.

In order to even be eligible for such payments, claimants must keep a tidy tally of both damages incurred and lost revenue sources. A hotel without customers, national wildlife refuges without animals and patrons, and states with massive, oil-related clean-up costs -- all must place a dollar value on their harms and petition for compensation. A subpoena may be of less value than a calculator, says Oesting who is already involved in the BP case. "If I was [a claimant], I wouldn't hire a lawyer, I'd hire a very good forensic economist to set your losses and present your claims to BP," he says. "If they don't pay it, then go to the [Oil Spill Liability Trust] Fund. The government can duke it out with BP."

Yet limits on liability do not apply if the responsible parties committed gross negligence, wilful misconduct, or violations of government regulations. This seemed like a foregone conclusion by many in Congress even before Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Tuesday the criminal and civil investigations of BP and others for violations of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- something the government is almost certain to find.

Even with criminal charges, however, Congress can intervene by removing the $75 million cap. And it remains to be seen whether the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon could lead to charges of manslaughter, or worse, against BP. It turns out that even the current law -- which has never been tested in a disaster of this magnitude -- is not such a helpful guide to predicting what will happen next.

Perhaps the biggest wild card is the possibility of lawsuits outside the purview of the Oil Pollution Act. Anyone can sue and claim damages in the courts, invoking laws that cover such incidents; most suits against Exxon were by communities and businesses. Such claims would be subject to no mandatory caps -- allowing juries to potentially exact a steep toll on BP in court.

For its part, BP has stated in news reports and congressional testimony that it expects to exceed the $75 million cap  without seeking reimbursement from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. In other words, either out of a sense of responsibility or a last-ditch effort at damage control, the oil giant has  committed to paying damage claims without considering the cap (if not necessarily the true cost of damages). This does not seem to have mollified Congress, which is already debating raising liability to $10 billion. Elected officials, meanwhile, are vowing financial retribution: Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu pledged last week that BP will repay "every penny of loss to affected individuals, businesses and communities, as well as the American taxpayer."

To date, although BP says it is paying off all "legitimate" claims, only $37 million had been distributed to claimants, primarily for those in immediate dire straits. "The primary focus is on direct impacts and people's ability to earn income," says David Nicholas, a BP spokesman in Houston. "We're pushing them through as quick as possible." Of the 26,000 or so claims submitted as of May 30, the firm has paid out about 12,000, typically to shrimpers, boat captains, and others affected by government restrictions on fishing grounds.

Those paid for lost income this month are eligible next month, and much larger payments are still due for businesses and natural resources ruined by the spill. Nicholas says the total cost of the operation for the first month of the spill is at least $930 million. Yet the level of compensation so far, most observers think, is extraordinarily low, given the size of the region's population and the value of its fisheries.

BP's legal strategy has yet to emerge. For now, it has set up a website to pay out immediate claims. One prediction is that BP will settle many of the outstanding costs as soon as possible, and allow bad press to recede for as long as 2 to 3 years, before attempting to fight any cases and paying out claims of pending lawsuits.  

For McRae, at the Cedar Point Fishing Pier in Coden, Alabama, his business may not survive to see the fight. Business is down 50 percent compared to last May. He's already submitted claims to BP for the loss in customers, but says he hasn't heard back and is not optimistic after attending a meeting with company officials in the neighboring town of Gulf Shores. An accountant at the meeting representing a local condominium development raised his hand to say that he submitted 1,700 pages documenting his losses, and BP replied requesting more information. "Does that tell you they are going to do the right thing?" asks McCrae. "They are not going to do the right thing."

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