If anyone is looking for clues about the current state of Turkish-American relations, the Feb. 10 issue of the Milliyet daily presents an opportunity. The importance of those relations is not limited to the bilateral level; they carry significance for the whole Middle East region and even for the international system in general. The fact that Turkey was the first country to which Barack Hussein Obama paid a bilateral visit as U.S. president in 2009 speaks for itself.
Milliyet became the first Turkish media outlet to get an interview from Obama following his re-election, and splashed it Sunday on its front page. What a U.S. president says and does not say is equally important. Obama’s comments on Iran and Syria contain points and nuances that are of significance for the global political agenda.
Since Milliyet provided details of how the interview was conducted, we know that the U.S. president did not answer certain questions and we know what they were. The interview was not conducted face-to-face but in a written Q&A form. This is how Milliyet explained the format: “We had the following agreement with the White House on the interview: Obama was to answer five to 10 questions out of a total of 10 questions we would pose. That is, he reserved a right to not answer all questions. Following the bomb attack at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, we added another question, and eventually received answers to only seven out of 11 questions. The questions Obama chose not to answer reveal as much as the replies he gave to the rest.”
The questions the U.S. president “chose not to answer” identify the areas where Turkish-American ties are under strain, or the issues on which the two sides clearly diverge, in what Obama has explained as, “No two countries agree on everything. And Turkey and the United States are not an exception.” Here are the unanswered questions:
— Ankara’s relationship with Baghdad is deteriorating while economic and political ties with the Northern Iraqi administration are blooming. What are your thoughts on this new situation, especially on Kurdish oil being distributed to the world through Turkey?
— Turkey and the United States have fundamental differences on the operation Israel carried out in the Gaza Strip in November. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of being a terrorist state, while you defended the operation as self-defense. Has this contrast left any damage on Turkish-U.S. ties?
— The prime minister said in a recent television interview that Turkey is considering to join the Shanghai Five as an alternative to the EU. Is this a viable option for Turkey, especially in regards to its ties with the U.S.?
— The 100th anniversary of the 1915 events is approaching. Are you planning to endorse a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide or to recognize it yourself as you pledged during your 2008 election campaign?
Frankly speaking, the four questions Obama skipped are far more interesting and crucial than the seven questions he answered. But by not replying, he gave us the chance to see the “black holes” in Turkey-U.S. relations.
The idea of “the Shanghai Five instead of the EU” may be revealing of what lurks in the depths of Erdogan’s mind and what his “strategic horizons” could be, but at present it appears to be no more than “a fantasy.” Similarly, the issue of the Armenian Genocide could wait until 2015. So, those two questions do not carry urgency for Turkish-U.S. ties in terms of current politics.
Therefore, it is worth analyzing the first two questions as they are of immediate significance at present: the Ankara-Arbil ties in the context of overall Turkish-Iraqi relations; and the absence of any hope for the improvement or mending of Turkish-Israeli ties, underscored by each statement Erdogan makes. The fact that Israel will be Obama’s first foreign destination in his second term in office, compared to Turkey being the first in his previous term, is perhaps a sign of what a serious complication the breakdown in Turkish-Israeli ties has become in current Turkish-U.S. affairs.
Their differing approaches on Iraq and the Kurds represents the most significant disagreement between Ankara and Washington today, even though the Turkish public opinion is not yet fully aware of the issue.
The United States’ Iraq dossier has been entrusted to Vice President Joe Biden. In Biden’s view, a centralized structure involving Nouri al-Maliki ensures the optimal protection of U.S. interests in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. Or, Biden at least does not want to fully cede Maliki as a gift to Iran. Hence, he is worried over recent developments between Baghdad and Arbil that have revived independence tendencies on the part of the latter.
And then comes the most striking paradox: Ankara, Tehran’s rival across the whole region but especially in Syria, and Baghdad, that is, Maliki, who is seen as part of the Iran-Syria axis, have come to loggerheads. Erdogan has thrown his support behind Massud Barzani in Arbil. The two sides have begun to consider the option of developing and sharing the Kurdish oil and pumping it to Turkey via a second pipeline without Baghdad’s approval. As a result, Arbil has drifted away from Bagdad and moved closer to Ankara, causing eyebrows to rise in Washington.
While announcing Obama’s trip to Israel, the United States is yet to respond to Erdogan’s request to visit Washington, which he made in November. As Obama’s remarks to Milliyet suggest, this visit is eventually going to materialize. But the fact that no date has been scheduled for three months leaves room to suggest that “unease” is lingering between Ankara and Washington.
The increasingly visible strain between the two countries was further amplified last week with quite a high-profile polemic involving the U.S. ambassador in Ankara.
Ambassador Francis Ricciardone attracted harsh reactions from the government over some comments he made to journalists. The AK Party spokesman, Huseyin Celik, said the ambassador had “overstepped the line” and urged him to “come to his senses,” using an unusually tough language for courtesy norms. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag followed suit and dressed down Ricciardone in equally harsh terms. Even though Ricciardone backed down and sent an “apology letter,” Prime Minister Erdogan stepped in and targeted the U.S. ambassador at the weekend. “No one should misjudge our patience, tolerance and easygoingness. Turkey is no one’s whipping boy. Turkey is not a country on which anyone could attempt operations or surgeries. We are not a nation to be cowed. We are not a nation to surrender its will and mortgage its freedom. Turkey is a great state. No one should see Turkey as a country that could be taken under unilateral influence, guided around or made toe the line with high-pitch [rhetoric]. We are modest but we don’t act with an inferiority complex.”
It is obvious that this statement goes beyond a response to Ricciardone and emphasizes vocally Turkey’s “independence” vis-à-vis the United States. It would be only natural if Ricciardone was baffled. He had said that, “You have members of Parliament who have been behind bars for a long time, sometimes on unclear charges. Military leaders have been imprisoned as if they were terrorists. The former head of the Higher Education Board is behind bars. It would be hard for American and European courts to make sense of this.” The views he expressed were in fact similar to statements made personally by Erdogan himself.
But what Ricciardone fails to see or do not want to see is that there is an aspect to his remarks that infuriates the government officials and Erdogan himself. The issue on which Ricciardone made a “warning” concerns soldiers and civilians accused of having plotted a military coup against Erdogan, or so to say, representatives of “The Ancien Régime.”
As a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Ankara in the late 1990s, Ricciardone witnessed the army’s last intervention -- known in Turkey’s political lexicon as “the post-modern coup” — when those in power today had become the victims of oppression and Erdogan himself had landed in jail. Ricciardone never uttered a word — neither at the time or afterwards — against the practices of “The Ancien Régime” and its numerous human rights violations, or in defense of the “underdogs” whose rights were then trampled on, among them the Kurds. The fact that he is today voicing concern for military-civilian elements of the old regime has irritated many quarters, and primarily Erdogan.
During his tenure as ambassador in Cairo, Ricciardone had become the target of criticism for his close relations with Hosni Mubarak. As soon as he assumed his post as ambassador to Turkey, he made his first public statement again in the midst of a coup-related judicial investigation in early 2011, attracting the government’s ire. Erdogan had then scolded him as a “rookie.”
Two years later, and only days after the U.S. Embassy in Ankara suffered a terrorist attack, Ricciardone became again the target of a ferocious salvo. Is this a sign that the existing virus in Turkish-U.S. ties is now starting a fever?
Given the questions Obama refrained from answering, that’s possible. Even though ties between Washington and Ankara appear all positive on the outside, we will see in the coming days how the disease on the inside develops and what remedies it is treated with.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He contributed to two Century Foundation publications: Turkey's Transformation and American Policy and Allies in Need: Turkey and the U.S. He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul. Çandar was a special foreign policy advisor to Turkish President Turgut Özal from 1991 to 1993.