As Obama gears up for his second term, his decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, and John Brennan will affect the Turkish – American relationship. Turkey, despite its value oriented approach to foreign policy, has few problems with the U.S. drone war. Thus, the appointment of Brennan to CIA director will likely garner little criticism in Ankara. While Turkey would likely rather see appointees with a more hawkish attitude towards Syria, Ankara is likely to support the confirmation of both Hagel and Kerry. The foreign policy positions of both men are, by and large, in line with Ankara’s vision for the region.
David Rothkopf writes in Foreign Policy that:
. . . the reality is that for all the differences among the members of this national security team — East Coast liberal Kerry, heartland Republican Hagel, career CIA Brennan, tough, shoot-from-the-lip Susan Rice, strategy-sensitive, process master Donilon — there is one thing that links them all. It is not engagement. It is disengagement. Even though Hagel voted for in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his defining stands on international security issues have come when he has-true to his Vietnam-era roots-resisted American intervention and sought to pull the country out of what he saw as costly, unwinnable engagements. Indeed, in terms of Iran policy, one of the things that has critics up in arms about the Pentagon appointment is Hagel’s public resistance to an American military confrontation with that country over its nuclear program. Hagel, Kerry, and other members of the Obama team have all been actively working for the past few years to reduce America’s military involvement in the Middle East to its bare minimum. Even Brennan’s appointment as CIA director should be seen in that context; inside the administration the drone warfare that Brennan has advocated is viewed as part of a “light footprint” strategy in the region that allows America to reach out and touch its enemies with the smallest possible commitment of resources and the least risk.
For Turkey, this approach is fraught with both risks and benefits. Ankara, should the Administration choose to try and outsource the handling of the region’s problems to trusted regional allies, stands to benefit. The United States and Turkey are close allies and the current dynamics that have contributed to the post-Bush Administration warming of ties is unlikely to change anytime soon. President Obama will be in power for the next four years and no one really knows when Erdogan will leave office. Thus, the two countries will not suffer any break in the warm leader-to-leader relations that have developed in the past four years.
Moreover, as the United States looks to countries in the region to pick up the post-Arab revolt pieces, Turkey is likely to be the United States’ first choice. While the U.S. will certainly look to tighten ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi and Qatari monarchies, and the Syrian opposition, Turkey presents the most attractive option for an American bureaucracy searching for someone to talk to. In return, Ankara will likely be able to wrangle concessions from the United States. While the export of armed drones is extremely remote, Turkey could convince the United States to increase intelligence cooperation against the PKK. Thus, if the current ongoing talks with the PKK fail, Turkey can expect to receive the full throated support of the United States.
Moreover, Hagel and Kerry’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is much more in line with the Turkish position. Ankara, despite being wary of the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran, has always defended Iran’s right to enrich. The Turkish leadership maintains that robust diplomacy is the best way to resolve the current impasse and believes that military strikes would be disastrous for Turkey and the region. Ankara has encouraged the United States to seriously engage, believing that the two sides need to have sustained dialogue to overcome their differences before they can solve the nuclear impasse. Hagel and Kerry, according to reports, share this point of view.
However, the United States’ potential outsourcing of the Middle East to Turkey poses a number of serious challenges for the leadership in Ankara. First and foremost, Turkey has proven that it lacks both the soft and hard power to seriously influence events in the region. When faced with a serious foreign policy problem like Syria, Ankara reflexively turned to the United States to help solve its problems. Washington’s hesitance to engage, which is likely to continue, was a source of friction. Ankara should prepare itself for more “Syria policy” like problems with the United States in the future. Turkey will have to be ready to shoulder more of the burden and prepare itself for a Washington keen on “leading from behind”.
Ankara, despite claims to the contrary, has not yet shown the capability to be a regional heavyweight. Moreover, the American approach now puts Ankara in the position of having to be the face of the Western camp in the Middle East. While Turkey shares many of the overarching goals of its Western allies, it has been able to deflect criticism by hiding behind the United States. If Turkey were to become more forceful in its dealing with other regional states, it could suffer a backlash. Ankara, therefore, will have to take careful stock of its capabilities, before offering itself as the solution to every regional problem when the U.S. comes knocking.
Moving forward, it appears likely that the current “golden era” of U.S. – Turkish relations will continue. Washington, in my opinion, will continue to welcome Turkish leadership and will try and outsource the handling of regional conflicts to Ankara. Turkey will welcome these developments and will be able to win some concessions from the United States. The issues where the two don’t see eye-to-eye (KRG oil deals, Iran sanctions, etc.), will continue to be overshadowed by the numerous areas in which the two sides’ interests align. However, Turkey is likely to find itself mired in a series of political quagmires moving forward. In the past, the Turkish electorate has shied away from entangling itself in the region (think Syria). Therefore, it is likely that Ankara will not be the only capital that Washington looks to shoulder a heavier load. Nevertheless, I suspect that the AKP is in for one hell of a ride. Stay tuned . . .