Our Relations with Turkey, Another Tipping Point?

The August 15 Financial Times reports that “…Obama has personally warned Turkey’s prime minister that unless Ankara shifts its position on Israel and Iran it stands little chance of obtaining the US weapons it wants to buy…” Read on into the report and Obama’s message becomes more nuanced: no direct threat but concern about difficulties with Congress over pending weapons sales, and so forth. But let there be no mistake, later in the report an administration spokesman spells it out more clearly: Turkey better get back in step, or else. This comes at a time when Turkey wants to buy some of our drones to cope with PKK units based in mountain retreats in northern Iraq.

Israel’s clout in Congress is generally recognized and of course the Turks recognize it too. I doubt that they will throw a public hissy fit over this. Byzantine diplomacy reached its finest flower in what is now Turkey, after all. The odds are that they will find subtle ways to express their displeasure, measures that will hurt but not resonate in the media. The key question for me is whether they will be satisfied with a few such measures, or whether the present rebuff will push them toward reconsidering the fundamental question of what they are and what they want to become. Is their goal to be a southeastern bastion of Europe, or an emerging major power in Central Asia? If this “warning” by our President helps tip them away from the European to the Central Asian option, then the ultimate price we shall pay for this small favor to our Israeli mistress will be very high. And it will be even higher for Israel.

The European option is an implant, created by the genius of Ataturk less than a century ago. The other option, eastward-looking, is based on the country’s history and religion, and a growing number of Turkish voters support it. The country is split down the middle at this point, and it could go either way. It is at a tipping point, where relatively small issues can have a disproportionate influence on the course of history. Usually it is foolish to make mountains out of molehills, but this is a case where events in a molehill could actually move a mountain.

The Turks have been loyal friends and allies since the Korean War and before. I could develop this theme at much greater length, and demonstrate that they have done a great deal to enhance our security and general welfare in the last fifty years or so. But what’s the point? Every Turk knows that his country has been our steadfast ally for his whole life, but if we demonstrate that we are prepared to forget all this history to throw a bone to Israel, he is going to devalue that friendship, perhaps to the point it becomes disposable. And that would be serious.

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