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Turkish Bellicosity is NATO's Dilemma

JINSA Report #: 

October 6, 2011

Bellicose threats directed at Israel by the Turkish government delivered over the past two months are extremely disturbing and demand an American response. Never before in the history of the alliance has a NATO member used such strident and threatening language at a fellow democratic country. This is in addition to nine years of actions counter to the positions of its Western partners.

The succession of hostile declarations by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials has been accompanied by a downgrading of relations with Israel and a threat to deploy Turkish naval vessels to confront the Israeli blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, a measure the UN recently declared legal. Intentionally ratcheting up tensions in the face of conciliatory Israeli responses is a strategy by which Erdogan believes he can position Turkey as the lead "confrontation state" opposing Israel, surpassing Iran's image with the Arab street.

But Turkey is not just another country seeking advantage in the Middle East by demonstrating hostility toward Israel. Turkey is a NATO member and, as such, derives tremendous benefits from the Alliance. As the leading NATO member, the United States must not ignore Turkey's hostile behavior and the Erdogan government's slide toward authoritarianism and an Islamic state.

Since his AKP was first elected in 2003, Erdogan has waged a multi-pronged assault on Turkish democracy. As time goes by, the government's colossal Ergenekon case, ostensibly aimed at those alleged to have been plotting a coup, appears to be a massive frame-up of hundreds of generals, lawyers and educators solely for being opposed to the AKP's creeping Islamicization of the country. Media freedoms have been curtailed and Erdogan and his subordinates promote sectarian strife with incendiary language against religious minorities.

AKP rhetoric over the last decade is creating an anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-NATO and anti-Western society in Turkey. A short list of AKP initiatives that run counter to NATO and American interests undertaken by Erdogan and his government includes:

  • As the United States was seeking to isolate the Hamas terrorist organization, the AKP arranged a warm reception in Turkey for Hamas senior official Khaled Meshaal.

  • Turkey, along with Brazil, spearheaded an ultimately unsuccessful nuclear swap plan intended to undermine Western efforts to counter the Iranian nuclear program.

  • The AKP government has led a widespread and vicious anti-Israel campaign in Turkey for several years now that has often devolved into overt anti-Semitism.

  • Erdogan pledged that the (U.S.-supplied) Turkish Navy would escort Turkish ships carrying supplies to Gaza in contravention of the lawful blockade.

  • Egemen Bagis, a close Erdogan aide who now serves as Turkey's Minister for European Union Affairs, threatened to use the (U.S.-supplied) Turkish Navy against Cyprus, an EU member state.

  • Erdogan used his most recent UN address to bash Israel in the crudest possible terms.

Stung by the negative response by European leaders to his August attacks on Israel, Erdogan subsequently agreed to a long-standing NATO request for the stationing of a ballistic missile tracking X-Band radar in Turkey. Erdogan must not be allowed to side-step Western concern over his support and tolerance for terrorist groups and the growing repression of his own citizens by acceding to NATO priorities which should have been Turkey's priorities as well.

To many, Turkey's movement away from being a secular democracy is rapidly reaching a point of no return. The AKP has successfully undermined and infiltrated key secular institutions in Turkey including the military, important educational institutions (most notably, the Higher Education Board - YOK) and the judicial system.

Compounding America's policy dilemma is that Turkey remains important to U.S. interests in several critical areas that militate against a sudden shift in relations. Nevertheless, American regional goals cannot be achieved unless Erdogan's increasingly hostile behavior is countered and the movement in Turkey away from basic freedoms is reversed. The U.S. response, while measured, must also be resolute. With Turkish elections not due until 2014, the real question is whether Turkey under the AKP can be considered to be a friend of America and whether the country still belongs in NATO.

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