Let's stop pretending that we actually protect Turkey

Let's stop pretending that we actually protect Turkey
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey should not have been invited to visit the White House this week. The last time Erdogan visited, his security detail attacked peaceful protestors. In the past, his government arrested an innocent American as a chit to trade.  

Under Erdogan, Turkey has supported radical rebels in Syria. Its recent invasion of northeast Syria allowed proxy militias to seize land and force more than 100,000 civilians from their homes. Now, Erdogan is threatening to release Islamic State (ISIS) prisoners into Europe. Turkey has agreed to buy Russian air defenses, despite being part of NATO. And then there are Erdogan’s attacks on democracy and free speech in Turkey.

Erdogan should be treated like any other autocrat offending liberal values and acting at odds with U.S. foreign policy — told, without insult or flattery, that the United States plans to distance itself. Turkey is a more strategically important country than most, but the United States does not need its help to be secure and should stop acting like it depends on Turkey’s favor.

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U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars, especially Syria’s, has kept the United States needlessly entangled with Erdogan’s autocratic government. U.S. forces have relied on its bases, eventually received its help in policing its own border against ISIS recruits, and pleaded for its temporary restraint from attacking the Kurds.

But, more than any other outside power, Turkey deserves blame for prolonging Syria’s misery. It long looked the other way as caliphate-bound ISIS rebels crossed its border. Turkey, along with the United States’ ostensible Gulf allies, supported radical rebels in Syria. Turkey’s partial control over northwest Syria makes it a haven for jihadists, some of whom hid the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Besides attacking civilians, Turkish-backed militias are preventing the Assad regime from retaking parts of northeast Syria, prolonging the civil war. Turkey has weaponized even its good deed of taking on 3.7 million Syrian refugees — for which it was well-compensated — by threatening to send them to the West, in order to quiet European criticism of Turkey's actions. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the other major tie binding the United States to Turkey. Not only is Turkey a NATO member, it boasts the largest army in the alliance besides ours and sits atop an important waterway. But while Washington tepidly debates whether to rethink its NATO commitment to Turkey due to Ankara’s actions in Syria, Turkey has taken steps on its own to drop out of NATO.

An unspoken rule of the alliance is that members buy military hardware from other members, chiefly the United States, and not from adversaries that the alliance is meant to counter. But closer ties with Russia prompted Erdogan’s decision to buy the S-400 Russian air defense system; now, Turkey threatens to buy Russian Su-35 fighters unless it is allowed to buy U.S. F-35s, which is prohibited by law due its S-400 purchase.

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Two approaches to Turkey predominate in Washington. The first, evident in the White House, is to hug Turkey tighter, sanction it only with great reluctance, and try to cajole it into better behavior. The second, manifest in the recent sanctions package passed by the House, is to broadly coerce Turkey into better behavior with economic pressure.

Neither approach is promising. Erdogan’s history suggests he is unlikely to be flattered into shifting policies he sees as essential to Turkey’s interests, though he might grudgingly delay them, as with his attack on the Kurds. Sanctions might feel like justice, but they are unlikely to achieve a useful outcome. They are too hard to reverse, tend to increase nationalism and support for elites in the sanctioned state, and usually cause too little pain for those elites compared to the benefits they see in continuing the sanctioned activity. 

The United States certainly should not embark on a contradictory policy of assaulting Turkey’s economy while claiming to defend it and keeping nuclear weapons there, supposedly for its use against the Russians whose weapons Turkey is buying. A better policy would disentangle the United States from Turkey and allow it to pursue its ends without Washington’s backing. 

First, the simplest way to distance the U.S. from Turkey is to wind down our ongoing, needless conflicts in the Middle East, which create leverage for Ankara. There already are great reasons to exit Syria — and this is another.

The second step is to stop claiming to defend it. Turkey has some valid complaints against the United States; Turkey is not a vassal, and we should expect it will continue to pursue its interests. But U.S. alliances are not sacrosanct. Not even a NATO ally is entitled to unconditional U.S. support. 

U.S. forces and tactical nuclear weapons should be removed from bases in Turkey. And then the United States, ideally along with major allies, should announce that they do not consider their defense commitment to Turkey to be active until it manages to act like a liberal ally. Nothing in the NATO treaty prevents that.

Some say this step will merely harden Turkey against the West and drive it into Russia’s arms. But it's already halfway there, and those two nations’ rocky history says the romance will not last. In return, the United States will lose a base that has facilitated travels to counterproductive wars, and distance ourselves from an unreliable ally that is soft on terrorism and weak on liberalism.

Despite its size and geography, Turkey has never meaningfully aided U.S. security. We should encourage Turkey to restore democracy at home — but we should stop pretending to protect it.

Benjamin H. Friedman is policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington foreign policy organization that promotes U.S. strategies based on national interests. He is an adjunct lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a PhD candidate in political science at MIT.