Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican Party presidential candidate, said on Monday night that Turkey is ruled “by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists” and he questioned whether it should remain a member of NATO.
Perry was participating in a Fox News debate of Republican Party presidential hopefuls in South Carolina. The state is due to vote in the party’s primary election this Saturday to nominate an opposition candidate to run against President Barack Obama in November.
The Texan observed that Turkey was moving “far away” from the country that he lived in during the 1970s when he was stationed in Turkey as a United States Air Force pilot. Turkey at the time was under an unstable secular government that was overthrown by the military in a 1980 coup. Nevertheless, it “was our ally,” said Perry. “Today, we don’t see that.”
The current conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conducts a more independent foreign policy and has sought to infuse Islamic values in a nation that is overwhelmingly religious but seen aggressive attempts at secularization under both civilian and army regimes for much of its republican history.
Erdoğan has severed ties with Israel in favor of a policy that is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, including Hamas, a group the United States regard as a terrorist organization. He tried to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Tehran in 2010 over Western objections but also agreed late last year to host an early warning radar system for NATO’s European missile shield despite Iranian pressure and threats.
Recently, the government in Ankara has distanced itself from Damascus after fostering trade relations with the Ba’athist regime there in previous years. President Abdullah Gül said in August of last year that he had “lost confidence” in his Syrian counterpart and Turkey has refused to close its border with Syria for refugees seeking to escape the brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
American-Turkish relations have been complicated by Turkey’s assertiveness. Where it used to be staunchly pro-American and considered itself Western, Erdoğan and his Islamist party have realigned their country to become a power in region. The move has not been without suspicion — from the United States as well as opposition parties inside Turkey that fear an Islamization of their society.
If Turkey is to be a regional player, it cannot be perceived as an American puppet regime. Nor can it maintain cordial relations with the Jewish state if it is to present itself as an alternative to either theocracy or secular dictatorship.
Especially in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” which forced authoritarian, secular and often pro-Western governments out of power, Turkey’s blend of democracy and Islamism may be a model for revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria where the majority of people are conservative and Muslim and antisemitism is rife. It is why Ankara has distanced itself from the depots it was so willing to do business with just a few years ago in the name of “zero problems with neighbors” and embraced the new order in the Middle East — one it hopes to lead.
This could be an opportunity for the United States to exert influence through Turkey on countries that are generally anti-American except for their (military) establishments that have for decades conducted a foreign policy that lacked popular support.
Perry didn’t recognize such an opportunity. He said he wanted to “send a powerful message to countries like Iran and Syria and Turkey that the United States is serious.”
Grouping Turkey, a NATO ally for sixty years, with overtly anti-American regimes like Iran and Syria would constitute a major shift in American strategy and possibly undermine its foreign policy across the Middle East if it is seen as mistaking conservative Islam for extremism.
A foreign-policy advisor to Rick Perry’s campaign elaborated on the governor’s comments to an ABC News journalist after the debate, explaining that it was the Turkish government’s association with Hamas that prompted his use of the word “terrorists.” She added that as president, Perry “would welcome the opportunity to work with Turkey on regional issues like Syria or Iraq.”