Cautious optimism for Turkey-US partnership

Published 05.08.2018 22:24
Updated 06.08.2018 01:56

Turkey's response to the U.S. sanctions against two of its Cabinet ministers has been decisive, yet reasonable. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Singapore last week to convey the message that Washington's threats were unacceptable.

Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak added that the situation must be managed with "a rational mind." Noting that Çavuşoğlu's meeting with Pompeo was "constructive" and "positive," he stressed that Turkey and the U.S. will not cut their ties, even if the relationship gets strained at times.

Albayrak's comments reflect the perspective of Ankara, which appreciates how important the Turkey-U.S. relationship is. Needless to say, Ankara has maintained a rational and patient approach in recent years, even though the U.S. has adopted certain policies that threaten the country's vital interests. Despite the fact that Washington has been openly supportive of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) as well as the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Turkish side kept looking for ways to address pressing problems and promote closer cooperation between the two governments. The main reason for Turkey's commitment is that cutting ties with Washington would hurt both sides – Ankara in the short run, and the U.S. in the long run.

Contrary to what many Turkey experts in Washington seem to believe, Ankara's foreign policy is not shaped by an ideological agenda. Over the years, the Turkish government did not strengthen its relations with Russia and China at the expense of its partnership with the United States and Europe. Even when Ankara purchased the S-400 from Moscow, the deal was formulated in such a way that it would not weaken NATO's defense systems.

Nonetheless, it is unreasonable to expect Turks to refrain from criticizing Washington's actions, which are not in line with the spirit of the Turkish-American partnership. Moreover, U.S. officials must understand that imposing sanctions and mounting pressure on Turkey will not make Ankara stop following an independent foreign policy based on its national interests.

To ensure that the current tension does not evolve into a perfect storm, both sides need to adopt a rational approach that takes into consideration their respective strategic interests. Although Ankara has already taken that step, it is difficult to argue that Washington has followed suit. It is discouraging, to say the least, that even Pompeo, the most pro-Turkey member of the Donald Trump administration, said that the sanctions showed the Turks that the U.S. was "serious."

The most serious threat that the Turkey-U.S. relations face today is the rapid decline in the number of individuals in Washington who appreciate the importance of cooperating with Ankara, and the rise in the number of advocates of "punitive measures" against the Turks. The fact Trump jumped on the "punish-Turkey" bandwagon after Congress is a negative development.

Even though the U.S. has yet to take concrete steps to address the existing problems related to FETÖ and the YPG, the eagerness of Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to talk was a significant asset. The two leaders had been able to keep the relationship on track despite U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) love affair with YPG militants in northern Syria. Dialogue continued even though the U.S. military took steps that had nothing to do with Trump's promises to his Turkish counterpart.

The first major crisis between the two leaders took place when the Trump administration relocated the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Erdoğan, who publicly criticized Washington's misguided decision, successfully persuaded the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning the U.S. Then came Andrew Brunson's house arrest and U.S. sanctions.

Nowadays, it appears there is nobody left in Washington that appreciates the importance of Turkey's cooperation other than a handful of State Department officials and some commanders at the Pentagon. The question is who will advocate a rational approach in Washington at a time when Trump desperately wants to "discipline" U.S. allies by threatening them.

Who will tell the Trump administration and Congress what the U.S. stands to lose if it alienates Turkey, which has no "active" lobbying efforts in Washington – especially with the midterm election around the corner? On Nov. 4, U.S. sanctions on Iran will further strain Turkey's already troubled relations with Washington.

Unless the Trump administration comes to their senses, Washington's relations with Turkey could be derailed by an unintended break – all because of the "eclipse of reason" in the United States.

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