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.