Did Obama Convince the Turks to Fall in Line?

Did a straightforward conversation between the American president and his Turkish counterpart “change everything”?

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks with American president Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks with American president Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

American-Turkish relations have been shaken up a bit in the last year and a half. In the early 2010, a lot of commentators suddenly woke up to realize that all that talk of “zero problems with neighbors” has actually been implemented as policy. Turkey was carving up a sphere of influence for itself to the east, talking with the rogue regimes in Damascus and Tehran and bashing Israel.

The Americans in particular worried that Turkey’s assertiveness could alienate it from the West. Former defense secretary Robert Gates even blamed the Europeans for not letting Turkey in their Union as if to say, “look at what you’ve done!”

Yet not much has changed. Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran last year but after the deal fell through, there were no more serious mediation attempts on the part of the Turkish government although it did vote against renewed United Nations sanctions shortly thereafter. It also objected to the NATO intervention in Libya but agreed to station early warning radar systems as part of a European missile defense shield on its soil last month — over Iranian objections.

Indeed, it would almost seem as if Turkey is “back” in the pro-American camp, if you believed the hype in the first place. What’s happened? Soner Cagaptay, who is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes he has the answer. In The Washington Post this weekend, he writes that one straightforward conversation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the sidelines of last year’s G20 summit in Toronto “changed everything.”

Obama told Erdoğan how upsetting Turkey’s UN vote had been to him and his candor helped clear the air between the two, as Turkish and US officials and friends have told me. And Turkey’s policy soon changed: Ankara stopped defending Tehran and began working with Washington.

Can you believe it? A few stern words from the president and Turkey changed its foreign policy overnight! You’d almost wonder why Obama didn’t tell the Turks to back down sooner.

Regular readers of the Atlantic Sentinel will know better. The reason Turkey pretended to be outraged by last year’s Gaza flotilla raid wasn’t because the Islamist conservative Erdoğan decided to dislike the Jewish state after seven years in government; as Wikistrat’s Dr Thomas Barnett explained at the time, Ankara needed its “bloody shirt” to justify its desire to become a nuclear power once Tehran inevitably announces the weaponization of its nukes.

Turkey’s estrangement from Israel will continue in the wake of the Arab Spring. Its engagement with authoritarian regimes in Iran and Syria in the name of “zero problems” has not fostered the very stability Ankara wished for. Instead, Syria’s attempt at repressing civil unrest may provide an opening for Kurdish discontent and militancy to flourish anew on Turkey’s border.

If the country’s foreign policy is to survive the Arab Spring, a more outspoken pro-Palestinian agenda could help. Erdoğan’s vocal support for the Palestinian cause held his administration in good stead among Arabs who took to the streets to demand democracy in Egypt and Syria. Its closeness with the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, by contrast, accomplished little in the end. President Bashar al-Assad hardly recognized Turkey’s call that he end the violence against demonstrators.

So Turkey is changing its foreign policy again, this time in favor of not just its neighboring governments but its neighboring people. Turkey, with its novel blend of moderate Islamism and secular administration, uniquely positioned between the Muslim world and Europe, should have been on the side of those to whom it appealed most all along — the very educated, cosmopolitan youngsters who are agitating against the corrupted and oppressive enlightened despotisms of their time.

Did the Turks need President Obama to remind them of that? Probably not. Countries don’t change their foreign policies because of words but “events, my dear boy,” as Harold Macmillan once said, “events,” indeed.