It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.
This reality has been driven home by Turkey's angry response to Israel's interdiction of the Istanbul-organized flotilla of ships that tried Monday to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After Israel's attempts to halt the vessels resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to Israel's actions as "murder conducted by a state." The Turkish government also spearheaded efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a harsh rebuke of Israel.
Monday's events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara's security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.
This revelation comes despite the hopes of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose inauguration was greeted with a sigh of relief along both the Potomac and the Bosphorus. Officials in both countries hoped that the Obama administration's international approach, which emphasized diplomatic engagement, multilateralism, and regional stability, would mesh nicely with that of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. The White House made it clear from the beginning that Turkey was a priority for Obama, who raised the idea of a "model partnership" between the two countries. Turkey, the theory went, had a set of attributes and assets that it could bring to bear to help the United States achieve its interests in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Naturally, as a longtime U.S. ally, Turkey was thought to share America's interests in these regions. That was the thinking, anyway.
A little more than a year after Obama addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Washington seems caught between its attempts to advance this model partnership, and recognition of the reality that Ankara has moved on. This desire to restore close relations with Turkey is partially based on a rose-tinted view of the alliance's glory days; even then, the relationship was often quite difficult, buffeted by Turkey's troubled relations with Greece, Ankara's invasion of Cyprus, and the Armenian-American community's calls for recognition of the 1915 massacres as genocide. Back then, Turkey was a fractious junior partner in the global chess game with the Soviets. Today, Turkey is all grown up, sporting the 16th largest economy in the world, and is coming into its own diplomatically.
Nowhere is Turkey asserting itself more than in the Middle East, where it has gone from a tepid observer to an influential player in eight short years. In the abstract, Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues.
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