Wednesday, April 04, 2007

‘New relation taking shape between Turkey and US’

3 April 2007
Today's Zaman
"I don't think the genocide resolution is the biggest problem between us {Turkey and the USA}. The biggest problem between us is the [terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK issue and the future status of Iraq. That's our number one issue. The Armenian issue is a problematic one, something again where we need to tell our side of the story effectively. I heard some Turkish colleagues who said, "Let the resolution pass and get on with it." But I still tend to be on the side that the Armenian resolution is a wrong decision and shouldn't be passed by Congress. And I am optimistic that it actually will not pass this year."
Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a Turkish foreign policy expert and currently the executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' office in Ankara, has said some American observers of Turkey have concerns about Turkish foreign policy moves because Turkey cannot communicate its objectives and intentions well. Indeed, he said, Turkey is reintegrating into the Middle East, which is not only in the interest of Turkey but also in the interest of its European and American partners.

"We need to try to ease the problems that arise at the moment between us and the United States, or us and the European Union, and help them to digest our new identity," Kınıklıoğlu said. "We come from an Ottoman state tradition. We feel like we don't need to tell others what we are doing, that others should understand us naturally, but that's not the case."

For Monday Talk, Kınıklıoğlu spoke with us about the new dimensions of Turkey's foreign policy, and how it has been affecting Ankara's relations, mainly with the United States and regional countries.

You have so much contact with Turkey observers in the United States. How do they see Turkey these days?

One of the biggest concerns I have been having in relation to how Turkey is perceived in Washington has been a worryingly negative interpretation of events in Turkey. And I think this has something to do with how analysts based in Washington interpret events in Turkey. The part of it might be that they are not physically in Turkey so they are not fully aware of the true dynamics of developments in Turkey. Two years ago this wasn't the case, but I think over the last year, since Turkey has been discussing the presidential election and then the new [parliamentary] elections, the political tension in Turkey has increased, so I think the way Turkey is interpreted in Washington has also changed.

Would you give specific examples of these perceptions?

Well, there are some people in the United States who talk about a military coup being imminent in Turkey. You know, the next president, his identity, has become very much our primary concern over the last couple of months, and it is going to intensify over the next few weeks. If you live in Washington and listen to some of the analysis there, you would think that there was an imminent danger of shariah being established in Turkey. I am not convinced that this sort of line is really objective about what is going on in this country.

What is going on in Turkey, in your opinion?

In my opinion, Turkey is going through a period of normalization in many respects, becoming a more open, more democratic, more transparent society. It is now healthily debating difficult issues like the Armenian issue, the Kurdish issue, how to accommodate religion within a secular democratic system, how to treat people who are not necessarily of Turkish ethnic background but are Turkish citizens. I think Turkey is going through a healthy period. The economy is going extremely well. However, some macroeconomic issues have almost been taken for granted. A couple of years ago, you couldn't go to a bank and get a loan for a house for 20 years. People seem to forget that we had 80 percent inflation. I remember vividly when people would be exchanging dollars in the morning and switching back to lira in the afternoon because of a volatile exchange rate. For four-and-a-half years we have been enjoying macroeconomic stability and good growth. While Europe is growing about 1 percent a year, we have been enjoying an average of 6.5 - 7 percent growth. This is very impressive, and we are doing this in an environment when there is a major war at our border. And at the same time, we are really intensely discussing some of these issues that I have just mentioned.

Do you think Americans who observe developments in Turkey are convinced that things are pretty normal or are they in a 'watch and see' mode?

Most of them remain concerned. I was in a workshop a few weeks ago in Washington. We were discussing these things. That the Americans express concern about Turkey is natural because Turkey used to be a a flank country defending the southeastern corner of the alliance. Now Turkey is more independent and becoming a regional power. The current tensions between the United States and Turkey on some of the issues in the region are normal tensions between a global hegemony and a regional power that is reasserting itself. So we are now experiencing a period where both sides need to adjust to this new situation. The Americans need to come to terms with the fact that there is a different Turkey at hand; it is no longer just a flank country in the southeastern corner of NATO, but is a country in a central location.

How serious are these 'tensions' you've just mentioned in the US-Turkish relationship?

We need to try to ease the problems that are arising at the moment between us and the United States or us and the European Union, and help them to digest our new identity. We Turks have a terrible problem with communicating what we are doing. I am part of the generation of Turks that emphasizes "Communication, communication, communication" because we generally don't communicate well what we are doing. One of the reasons I joined the GMF is because it is an organization with a very strong European network, and our work is really about Europe and the United States. And we see Turkey as part of Europe. In our work we bring in speakers who help Turks concern. And we Turks, as [former US Ambassador to Turkey] Marc Grossman said, "don't have PR genes." We come from an Ottoman state tradition. We feel like we don't need to tell others what we are doing; the others should understand us naturally, but that's not the case. Especially with a country like the United States, which has to deal with almost 200 countries on this planet, getting the attention of the US policy community or the US think tank community is a challenge. And Turkey should not assume that just by being Turkey or just by being located in this geography in itself will mean that there is going to be an interest in us. We shouldn't assume that the US always has a great interest in us. We should actually take our message to the United States in seminars, hold workshops with intellectuals who have direct contact with American counterparts and vice versa.

What is the US point of view regarding Turkey's relations with Iran?

In the United States right now the most important issue is Iran. Iraq, of course, is important, but the looming issue on the horizon is Iran. And when we talk about Iran, Turkey's relationship with its neighbors comes into question. In fact, the Turkish government has a foreign policy understanding that requires minimal problems with its neighbors. And over the last years, Turkey's relations both with Syria and with Iran have deepened; our trade has increased, our political dialogue has become deeper. I think in some quarters in Washington, this has been dealt with apprehension and concern. Turkey is also partly responsible for that perception taking shape because we have not been able to clearly communicate the intentions behind our foreign policy. But during the last six or seven months, there has been an effort to explain why Turkey is following the foreign policy it is following. That is actually not a source of concern but on the contrary, it is a development that should be welcomed by the United States.

Why is that?

This government's foreign policy has been largely inspired by Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu [who is the foreign policy advisor to the Turkish prime minister]. It is based on the understanding that Turkey should normalize its relations with its neighbors. And I think with the exception of Armenia, this policy has been successful. Iraq is a special case because we don't have an Iraqi state right now. With Iran this policy has been successful, with Russia it has been successful, with Syria it has been successful, and with Greece we now have good relations. I mean in general, this intellectual policy is a fresh and welcome departure from the old and narrow understanding of our foreign policy, which was "peace at home, peace abroad" which wasn't inspiring and didn't allow for a sophisticated outreach to our neighbors. One of the things that of course has come out from this is that Turkey has become now very influential and active in the Middle East. Turkey is one of those unique countries that can speak both to Israel and to Palestine, or can have good relations both with the United States but also with Saudi Arabia, Iran and many others. And I think this has been a welcome and fresh new development in our foreign policy, which is not always well understood in Washington.

What would be bothersome for the United States in that regard?

The primary concern we hear from our American colleagues is when there was an effort to isolate Syria two years ago, Turkey was increasing its trade and its contacts with Syria. There is also a timing issue here. Turkey's opening up to this region coincided with wanted to isolate these places. But Turkey cannot limit its foreign policy potential because other countries have an isolationist policy. Turkey would wish that this new policy would have occurred in another time period. But Turkey needs to trade with Syria, needs to trade with Iran, and Turkey wants to create an interdependency with these countries that would allow a moderating influence to be projected on these countries. We've been actually living through historic times because Arabs no longer perceive Turkey as the old Ottoman Empire. Now we are experiencing days when Turkish columnists are being translated into the Arab press and read widely, and Arab opinion pieces are translated in the Turkish press. Thus Turkey is reintegrating into the region, and that's not only in the interest of Turkey; it is also in the interest of our European and American partners. Because Turkey is in fact a security-producing and security-generating country, and can be and I think is an inspiration for many countries in the region. It may not be a perfect model because we have different historical experiences, but it can be an inspiration for many countries that aspire to becoming more open, more modern countries in which both democracy and Islam can cohabit.

US officials themselves usually say they see Turkey as a model country in the Middle East. Do they reinforce this thought by asking Turkey to play an intermediary role in the region, for example, in the conflict with Iran?

Turkey, of course, enjoys some channels of dialogue that our American friends sometimes don't have, especially with Iran. Turkey is not the only channel to Iran or Syria. Europeans also have channels of dialogue with them, but I think the difference Syria and Iran trust Turkey much more than many of the Europeans. Turkey is perceived as a country that has the ability to take independent decisions. The March 2003 decision not to allow US troops to invade Iraq from Turkish territory was a key turning point. And I think in that regard, our American colleagues from time to time do make use of Turkish diplomacy and Turkish access to Iranian and Syrian officials -- not only with Iran and Syria but also with other regional countries like Saudi Arabia and others.

Sometimes it's been said that the biggest obstruction in the way of the US-Turkish relationship is the Armenian genocide resolution. Do you agree with that?

I don't think the genocide resolution is the biggest problem between us. The biggest problem between us is the [terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK issue and the future status of Iraq. That's our number one issue. The Armenian issue is a problematic one, something again where we need to tell our side of the story effectively. I heard some Turkish colleagues who said, "Let the resolution pass and get on with it." But I still tend to be on the side that the Armenian resolution is a wrong decision and shouldn't be passed by Congress. And I am optimistic that it actually will not pass this year.

If it passes, do you think it will be disaster for bilateral relations?

If it passes, I think Turkey will take some measures; it will counter this sort of affront, this inappropriate action by the Congress. I think in the end, especially given our more problematic relationship with the European Union, I think some sort of sobriety will set in and both Turkey and the United States will continue to find ways to work together, especially in Iraq. If the resolution does not pass, it will be a much more constructive and cordial working environment with the United States on Iraq than it might be if the resolution passes.

What do you expect to happen regarding Turkey's concerns about developments in Iraq and the role of the United States?

The United States is one of the primary determinants of what is going to happen in Iraq. Turkey has an interest in both communicating and influencing the events in Iraq. We have an Iraq with a very problematic situation. You have the presence of the PKK, which always has the potential to strike Turkish targets, kill Turkish soldiers. And then you have also the future status of Iraq, which may produce an entity, a Kurdish entity; I don't know in what form or shape. It could be a federal entity, it could be an independent one. Well, you could have decades-long internal civil war in Iraq. Turkey does not want that sort of instability to spread from Iraq into its own territory. The one thing that many people forget is that in 2003, when the war started, the last thing that people in the Southeast of Turkey wanted to hear was "war." In 2003, it was right around the time that Turkey was winning peace with its Kurdish citizens. Trade and investment had started to increase, tourism started to increase, with buses of western Turks traveling to Mardin, Urfa, Van and other places. And it was precisely the wrong time when the United States decided to invade Iraq because it complicated our own problems with our citizens of Kurdish background.

Some US officials have mentioned that the United States will take radical steps against the PKK. What could those be?

That could mean closure of some camps, the handing over of some of the PKK leadership. These are all nice things, and we have been hearing such promises for months now since the PKK coordinator Gen. Ralston [former retired NATO commander Joseph Ralston, who is the US envoy to coordinate efforts to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)] has been assigned, although we have yet to see the materialization of something meaningful. Some people think that Turkey is eager to make a military intervention into Iraq. This is not true. Turkey does not want to intervene in Iraq. We would like the Kurdish authorities involved in Iraq and for the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad to work in cooperation with the United States to deal with this issue. The PKK is a terrorist organization; it is listed as one by the United States. We expect the Iraqi authorities to deliver on what they have been saying to our leadership, but we need to see those things happen.

Suat Kınıklıoğlu

Suat Kınıklıoğlu has been the executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' (GMF) new office in Ankara since 2005. He previously worked on Black Sea security and strategic issues as a transatlantic fellow with an organization in Washington, D.C. He came to the GMF from the Ankara Center for Turkish Policy (ANKAM), where he served as the center's director and editor of Insight Turkey, a quarterly publication on Turkish foreign policy issues. Before his tenure at ANKAM, Kınıklıoğlu worked as a development officer responsible for Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan at the Canadian International Development Agency, based in Ankara. Prior to that, he was a senior political and economic research officer at the Australian Embassy in Turkey. He holds the rank of division/liaison squadron commander in the Turkish Air Forces. His publications include "History in the Making: Transformation in Turkey "; "Kirkuk, Northern Iraq and the 'Grand Bargain'"; "Dink, Doves and Democracy"; "Mind Your Own Business, France" and "Spurned by the West, Turkey Looks Eastward."

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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