Turkey and the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship have been much in the news of late.1 Foreign countries and bilateral relations do not make news here when everything is okay, so the abundance of coverage clearly indicates that things are not okay. And that would be right. Things are very not okay.
Still, it is noteworthy that, while Turkey has made big news, events abroad of equal or perhaps greater significance have not. Two examples out of a bucketful suffice to make the point: the Macron-Benalla “affair” in France, which threatens to tank the presidency of Emmanuel Macron at a very inconvenient time; and so-called Russian military police escorting UNEF forces back onto the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with Israel. A few years ago, both stories would probably have been front-page news, as they still should be.
Why is this? The answer is so simple that it’s almost embarrassing to have to say it: Donald Trump. Yes, the same mainstream press that helped make Donald Trump’s run for the White House what it was still can’t manage to take its mesmerized eyes off him. Thanks to the media’s shallowness and unjustified self-regard, Trump has become a black hole so dense with political gravity that no other news can escape it. One almost hopes there is a hell.
To be fair, much credit goes to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has helped Trump make a compelling reality-TV drama out of the latest crisis. So a private negotiation that nearly led to a detained U.S. citizen being sprung from house arrest, but didn’t, led “Black Hole” Donald to excoriate Erdoğan in public. The pride-pissing contest thus begun, things quickly got wetter. Erdoğan made some inflammatory speeches, pounding his fists about arrogant powers and “Zionists”—always good for a happy gut check in Turkey these days. Trump, reportedly furious that the private deal had gone awry, responded with tariffs against Turkish goods that have no economic rationale whatsoever—a case that if ever taken to the WTO would likely result in the U.S. side losing—but that caused an unprecedented tanking of the exposed Turkish currency in an already weakened economy. Then came an Erdoğan op-ed in the New York Times; then a suspension of F-35 deliveries to Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey has been from the beginning a program partner.2 Who knows what next.
A kerfuffle of such magnitude in a bilateral alliance relationship that takes on the appearance of a live-fire ping-pong match will inevitably invite much comment. And the usual suspects have commented in the usual places. Also as usual the commentary on Turkey has been varied in quality, as it tends to be when nearly everyone is rushing to get their two bits in first. But this time around the block there is a change: The more serious and knowledgeable American experts on Turkey have mostly come to a point of exasperation. There are few equities left untrampled by the Erdoğan government, they say, so there’s no reason for much regret over the poor state of the bilateral relationship. We will not have a normal, functional alliance relationship as long as Erdoğan is there, so there’s no reason to pull punches or resist acerbic reactions to nasty behavior—like Erdoğan screwing with American citizens abroad and arresting Turkish nationals who have been U.S. Embassy employees.
Indeed, one commentator actually had the verve to say that compared to its predecessors the Trump Administration had finally gotten Turkey right, even if its policy tactics left much to be desired, such as playing into Erdoğan’s stratagem of blaming foreign plotters for the consequences of his economic mismanagement. (But, you interject, Trump went out of his way to befriend and express admiration for Erdoğan before the current mess; yes, yes, never mind, pay no attention to the “whether/vain” in the Oval Office.) Another writer agreed, and suggested threatening to remove U.S. nuclear weapons based in Turkey as an additional inducement for the Turkish government to be more reasonable.
As far as I know, in the flood of recent commentary this latter writer has been the only one to mention nuclear weapons, and so we espy an interesting disconnect. Country and area specialists tend not to think in strategic or strategic military terms, and those who do think in strategic military terms either cannot or do not think like regional or country experts. That is why dozens of analyses can be written about the current situation with virtually no one connecting the dots between the two domains—and when a rare connection is made, it’s made myopically. Hold that thought for a moment, please.
Depending on who is doing the writing and who is doing the reading about Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship, other sorts of disconnections tend to appear, as well.
There is, first of all, often a disconnection between recent news and deeper background, leading some readers to think that what is old is actually new. In this case, the Turkish government arresting those who are politically inconvenient—whether an American pastor living in Izmir, former Embassy employees, competent Turkish military professionals, honest Turkish journalists, and others—is not the least bit new. The AKP government has been doing this for years, as recollection of the Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, and Cage Action Plan cases indicate. Its attack on military professionals has been matched and overmatched in recent months by its attack on journalists and others—but again, such harassments and jailings too have been going on for many years.
So has the undermining of the Turkish bureaucracy though vast numbers of senior patronage appointments. The fact that the President appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to be Economics Minister comes as a surprise only to those who do not know that Erdoğan appointed Hakan Fidan as head of MIT (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı), the Turkish intelligence service. Fiden, an Anatolian bumpkin of but modest capacities, did some pretty crazy and dangerous things after his appointment, not least trying to play games with ISIS in Syria that before long backfired—literally—inside Turkey. If Albeyrak believes, like his father-in-law, that high interest rates cause inflation—which is a little like believing that it rains because the pavement is wet—then more crazy things may be in store.
Now, it is true that since Erdoğan shifted from Prime Minister to President, rigged a plebiscite to change the constitution to give the President extraordinary powers, and leveraged a pathetic coup attempt to give him even greater “emergency” authority, his and the AKP’s anti-democratic tendencies have become more pronounced. (Neither they nor their Kemalist predecessors ever displayed much in the way of liberal tendencies, so there was nothing to get worse in that regard.) The coup gave the AKP types a new method to harass its opponents or suspected opponents: label anyone they want to screw a Gülenist, despite the inconclusiveness of the evidence that the Hizmat was the main first mover of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. So things are worse, but only by degree, not kind.
The same goes for U.S.-Turkish relations as goes for Turkish domestic affairs. If all a reader has to go on is recent newspaper articles, he might think the recent plunge in the bilateral relationship is a new thing. It isn’t. Problems go back a long way—the removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the June 1964 “Johnson Letter” over Cyprus being the key historical cases in point.
But there has been plenty of much more recent trouble as well: the failure of the Turkish Grand National Assembly to approve passage of the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey in the run-up to the Iraq War; Erdoğan’s confrontation at Davos with Israeli President Shimon Peres and his government’s subsequent role in sanctioning the MV Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza; the refusal for well over a year after the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign began on September 22, 2014, to allow use of Incirlik Air Base not only to attack ISIS but even to conduct SAR (search and rescue) operations should a U.S. pilot go down in hostile territory; the Turkish role in negotiating the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) deal with Iran and the subsequent Turkish vote against UN Security Council Resolution 1929 imposing additional sanctions on Iran; the related machinations of connected Turkish banks at helping the Iranian regime evade sanctions, and the related flap over the arrest and conviction of Halkbank’s Mehmet Hakan Atilla in January of this year; the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from his Pocono Mountains redoubt and the U.S. government’s refusal to accede; the recent announcement that Turkey, a NATO member, would purchase an S-400 anti-aircraft defense system from Russia—and that’s just the short list.
So, again, while the nadir of the bilateral relationship is striking, it is not new or surprising. It’s been an entire decade since Stephen Larrabee stated in a RAND report what seemed obvious to those paying attention at the time: “[I]n the future, Turkey is likely to be an increasingly less predictable and more difficult ally.”
The real question, then and now, is what to do about it. Until recently, the wiser course, adopted pretty much by consensus, was to bide time until Erdoğan departs the scene one way or another. Yes, the Cold War glue that held the allies together has disappeared, but Turkey is still an important partner in a critical place. No, post-Erdoğan Turkey will not return to the Kemalist Six Arrows contraption of blessed (American) memory, for too much had changed in Turkish society for that to happen. But Turkey’s non-AKP political parties, being less populist, more moderate, and more oriented toward Europe, would suffice to maintain a functional relationship. So the policy essence has been to maintain as many of the institutional relationships as possible that had grown up in the long context of the bilateral relationship and avoid taking Erdoğan’s bait in his effort to depict the United States (and of course the Jews and Armenians, always) as part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize Turkey and shrink it from the borders of the Treaty of Lausanne back to the humiliation of the Treaty of Sèvres.
Above all, advised those who really understood the lay of the land, do not screw around with the extended deterrence infrastructure that binds Turkey to the United States and NATO: namely, the 60-70 or so U.S. nuclear weapons deployed at Incirlik.3 (Remember that thought I asked you to hold a moment ago? Well, now it is time to turn your attention to it.)
And so of course some people—including very high-ranking U.S. military officers, for reasons of their own—tried to screw around with this infrastructure. Luckily, for better reasons, they failed to change the status quo. And for what is still a very good reason, the recent suggestion from the chatterati that the Trump Administration threaten to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Turkey as a way to gain leverage over Erdoğan is a very bad idea that would very likely accelerate Turkey’s march toward an independent nuclear weapons capability.
Turkey has signed the NPT, and its fledgling nuclear power program has yet to produce a single functional nuclear power plant. But the government has plans so far to build three: Akkuyu, as the result of a May 2010 deal with Russia; Sinop, as the result of a 2013 deal with Japan; and İğneada, as the result of a 2015 deal with Westinghouse, here in the United States.
As an NPT signatory, all of these plants and any others that come about would be subject to IAEA inspection protocols. But the Iranian model has shown what can be accomplished even under NPT/IAEA constraints. If the Turkish leadership decides it needs a nuclear weapons program as a hedge against the end of the U.S. extended deterrence shield, its scientific/engineering capabilities, greater than Iran’s, could probably produce nuclear weapons and airplanes capable of delivering them on its side of the ocean within two to three years.
Is this a development the U.S. government should encourage? If the main problem with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is ultimately its N+ proliferation potential in and beyond the region—and it is—then a Turkish breakout would have a similar effect as a regional proliferation stimulant. As a certain Head of State is fond of saying, “Not good.” A Turkish breakout would certainly change the Iranian calculus in the event that the Iranian leadership decided to remain below overt breakout status even after the expiration of the current nuclear deal. It would be very hard to do so if the Turks go first.
Now, back when these reactor deals were signed, several observers saw the building pattern as an eventual hedge against the deterioration of the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership. It stood to reason that if the U.S.-Turkish relationship was not long for the world, the Turks would recognize that trajectory as well. The conclusion: Turkey might resort to strategic self-help in a neighborhood in which, no matter which way one looked, one saw states with nuclear weapons or states likely soon to acquire them. The alternative was for Turkey to rely on the tender mercies of the Russian government, but unless one is an aspiring or incompetent comedian, there is nothing funny about that.
And yet, during the past decade the Turkish government under the AKP has not engaged in obvious hedging behavior. It may do so in future, but for the time being the situation is really rather odd. It suggests the mother of all disconnects, this one residing in President Erdoğan’s brain.
Turkey’s relations with the United States are terrible, yet Turkey still relies for its ultimate security on a U.S. nuclear guarantee of its safety. It is that guarantee which enables Turkey to cavil about with the Russians, and it is also that guarantee that has allowed the AKP principals to tell us, over and over again, that an Iranian bomb might threaten U.S. and Israeli interests, but not Turkish ones—and anyway diplomacy can solve the problem, even if it really hasn’t and won’t. If we remove our nukes and so trash the credibility of our extended deterrence pledge to Turkey, dots will connect even in Erdoğan’s somewhat exotic mind. Ankara’s fooling around with Moscow will look different in a hurry, and so will the prospect of an Iranian bomb, no matter what the Turks pretend still today.
To cavil does not presuppose Turkey’s liking the Russians, and of course we know that. We realize that the Russians have huge leverage over Turkey right now as a result of the war in Syria. The only part of that unhappy country not in regime hands is Idlib province, in the northwest along the Syrian border with Lebanon to the west and Turkey to the north. There are about 3.5 million Sunni Arabs there, most indigenous but many refugees already from Aleppo and other places of old, lost battles. If the Syrian regime goes after Idlib, it will touch off a refugee flow toward the Turkish border that could make previous flows look tame by comparison—and it could also change the vectors of Kurdish politics and power in a way Turkey does not desire.
Will the Syrian regime proceed to Idlib? Syria’s Iranian ally may have an appetite for such a campaign, using Hezbollah and a collection of Shi‘a militias as cannon fodder. But the Russians probably lack a similar appetite, since their basic interests in Syria are more or less satisfied by the status quo. So if they deny air support, they may be able to prevent a regime attack on Idlib. That is what the Turkish leadership wants the Putin government to do, and it is willing to pay a price for that outcome—like, for example, agreeing to buy the S-400s.
Meanwhile, as the Russians have the Turks up against a hard place, the Turks have the Germans in a roughly similar position thanks to the refugee deal the two governments signed a couple of years ago. So we have a kind of triangular diplomatic extortion racket going on here. The Russian leadership may promise the Turks anything, but to trust it to keep its word is foolish—especially since the prospect of again weaponizing a refugee flow into Europe, á la late 2015 and 2016, must be tempting from a Russian perspective, seeing as how it rattled Europe so usefully the first time around. So the Russians may get to screw two NATO member states for the price of one, since Turkey under such duress may simply be unable to honor its promises to Germany.
From a U.S. perspective, Russian leverage over Turkey is a problem, and not just having to do with Syria. It is easy to imagine a situation in which Putin is adventurous enough, given President Trump’s manifest attitude toward NATO, to test the alliance with a feinted hybrid incursion into, say, Latvia. NATO makes decisions to invoke Article V by consensus, and Turkey is a member that the Treaty provides no way to expel. So the Russians pull the trigger, NATO convenes, and Turkey vetoes any response because it fears the Russians will screw them to the wall. The Trump Administration may or may not be secretively appreciative of the Turkish obstacle—one never knows with this bunch. NATO can get around the consensus rule if we really want it to, so a Turkish veto need not spell the collapse of the alliance in strategic paralysis. But do that and it’s no longer the same alliance.
What’s really at stake in the current U.S.-Turkey crisis therefore goes deep into current strategic realities. The European security and proliferation stakes are both high. Compared to such stakes, the exposure of, say, Spanish banks to Turkish economic troubles does not even make it onto the bottom of the anxiety scale—but that’s what you get to read about in the newspaper, don’t you?
I understand the recent advanced exasperation of the Turkey experts, but I do not share its nothing-left-to-lose policy conclusion. Strategic patience still makes the best sense, which does not of course preclude testy ripostes to Turkish misbehavior. But care should be taken, for there is something left to lose. It may be that the Turkish government will decide at some point to kick us out of Incirlik, but we would be foolish to do things that make that more likely. If the Trump Administration wants to further stick it to Turkey, it has better options than dangling the strategic nuclear relationship in the air.
For example, Mr. Atilla remains in jail on a 32-month sentence, but the Treasury and Justice Departments are still considering what sort of fine to levy against Halkbank—which happens to be the second-largest government associated bank in Turkey—for helping Iran to evade sanctions. A fine of, say, $50 billion would not be outrageous given the extensive damage done, but that seems unlikely. A fine of just $20 billion could still kick the knees out from under Halkbank, but probably would not cause significant bank failures in the rest of Europe. Anyway, it’s just money.
Only please, everyone, just shut up about the nukes.
1. A decent summary of the state of play can be found on the front page of the August 20 Washington Post.
2. This is a bit complicated. Suffice it to say that the F-35 program is unique in that its business model included a pre-construction export market based on allied countries’ participation in the actual fabrication of the plane. Turkish defense contractors have indeed been responsible for building parts of the aircraft.
3. See Eric Edelman, “The View from Turkey,” in Perspectives in NATO Nuclear Policy, etudes & debáts, No. 3 (Paris: Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, May 2011), and the notes therein.