US-Turkish relations in the grip of Erdogan's personal ambitions

Over the past 16 years, relationship between the United States and Turkey has evolved from an exemplary alliance into something usually called relations of frenemies, a mixture of friendship and hostility.

It all began very well. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey. New political force positioned itself as a moderate Islamist movement and at the same time committed to the ideals of democracy. Washington saw in it a suitable partner and built new Turkish allies and NATO partners into its foreign policy doctrine of democratization of the Middle East.

Good relations of such prominent representatives of the AKP as Abdullah Gül, Bulent Arınç and Recep Erdogan with the West were then taken for granted. After all, the success of the AKP meant not only strengthening the role of Islam in Turkish politics, but also the triumph of democracy, which was able to take root in Muslim-majority society. American diplomats of the Bush era viewed Turkey as a model for development of the entire Middle East region. Views of Barack Obama’s administration were not fundamentally different. In 2009, the 44th President of the United States, speaking in the Turkish parliament, notoriously noted success of Turkish people in building democracy at home.

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Relations between Washington and Ankara were also well developed in the foreign affairs realm. The Americans were pleased with the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Especially important was the fact of military-political and economic cooperation with Tel Aviv of precisely the pro-Islamic government of Turkey, since it could set an example for other Islamist parties and movements in the Middle East. After the beginning of the “Arab spring”, USA hoped that the Turkish pro-Islamic elite would take custody of the forces that came to power as a result of the revolutionary changes in the region.

Against this background, within Turkey itself, processes began, due to which American-Turkish relations today have turned into a tangle of intractable contradictions. In 2002–2008, the AKP conducted a series of democratic reforms. In the foreign policy arena, the party representatives declared their commitment to the ideals and values ​​of the European Union, which Ankara has been striving to join for over 40 years. In the United States, it was believed that this was a sign of the readiness of Turkish society to switch to a pluralistic and liberal model of democracy. Few Western observers understood then that the Turkish authorities were using democratic methods to establish an authoritarian regime.

Within Turkey, the liberal and secular opposition was ready to support the authorities in dismantling the so-called The “guardianship system” (Turkish: vesayet sistemi) of the military-bureaucratic class, which overthrew civilian governments several times, finding that they threaten its interests and lead the country “not there”. At the same time, the destruction of alternative centers of power, even if they were anti-democratic, took place in the conditions of the unreadiness of society to subordinate the state to its will.

The Justice and Development Party, having enlisted the approval of Western countries, convinced a significant part of the Turks of the need for reform, while achieving by 2010–2011 a noticeable weakening of the military, the courts and the parliament. In the fight against non-systemic political circles, the government attracted the same non-systemic forces that hoped to get a piece in the subsequent division of power. A vivid example of such an alliance is the collaboration of the AKP with the religious movement of the preacher Fethullah Gulen, aka “Hizmet” movement, whose supporters began to receive significant privileges from the government.

At the same time, the personal power of one of the founders of the Justice and Development Party, Recep Erdogan, was strengthened. In many ways, the charisma of this politician was the key to the victory of the AKP in the elections of 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2015. For 16 years, Erdogan’s party has never lost a majority in parliament, giving him vital opportunity to change the country to his taste.

As Erdogan and the AKP strengthened their positions in Turkey, its foreign policy became increasingly independent and did not coincide with US interests. Awareness of this fact came to the American leadership in 2010. At that time, Ankara allowed the Turkish Islamist Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid to organize a provocative attempt to break through the blockade of Palestinian Gaza, directly challenging Israel’s national security interests.

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Washington broke up with Ankara and on the Iranian issue. After the United States imposed unilateral sanctions against Tehran in 2010, companies with offices in the States were prohibited from doing business with Iranian residents. However, the Turkish state bank Halkbank in 2012–2013, under the direct instructions of the country's leadership, participated in an international scheme to circumvent American sanctions in favor of Iran. Until 2013, the Americans did not have evidence that Halkbank, having access to the American banking network, helped the Iranians to receive foreign currency. In 2016, a lawsuit began in the United States against a high-ranking leader of the Turkish State Bank: the data were provided by supporters of Gulen, who by then already openly feuded with the Erdogan government. Now in Ankara fear

The conflict between Erdogan and Gülen - just recently an ally of the AKP in the fight against the secular Kemalist elite - became the starting point in the rapid deterioration of US-Turkish relations. Having dealt with direct competitors, Erdogan set about eliminating the influence network of the Gülen organization in Turkey. The danger for the AKP was represented primarily by supporters of Gülen in the bureaucracy, the army and the courts. The open struggle of Gulen and Erdogan began with an anti-corruption police investigation against Erdogan’s supporters in late 2013, which began with the suggestion of the Gulenists. And she reached her climax in July 2016, when supporters of an Islamic preacher decided on a military coup in the country.

True, the conditions for an objective investigation of those events have not yet been created in Turkey. There is an opinion that the authorities knew about the plans of the conspirators and hoped to use this incident as a pretext for tightening the screws. Commenting on the actions of the Turkish authorities after the introduction of a state of emergency in the country (mass arrests, closure of opposition media and so on), Barack Obama said that Erdogan was a great disappointment to him. In Washington it was decided that the Turkish leader used the insurgency as a pretext for repressing and expelling dissidents from the army and from government posts. Americans were particularly outraged by the persecution of people in Turkey who were not affiliated with the putsch, as well as biased investigations into more than 50,000 people arrested.

The US’s concern is not only Turkey’s departure from democratic norms. The Americans see that the forces in the republic that somehow felt that the country should be guided by US policy came under attack. Not surprisingly, the demand to extradite Gülen, despite the tons of materials of criminal cases allegedly provided by Ankara to the American officials, still remains unsatisfied.

Erdogan perceives criticism from Washington as a demand to abandon the extensive powers and influence that he has concentrated in his hands all these years. It is clear that as long as Erdogan rules the country completely, he may not worry about his freedom: no one would risk initiating an investigation into his relations with Gülen or the ministers accused of corruption. In these circumstances, Erdogan decided to make bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States the subject of his own bargaining with the US authorities.

In March of this year, the trial of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had lived in Izmir for the last 20 years, began. He was arrested in 2016 on charges of espionage and links to terrorists. This incident made the dialogue between Ankara and Washington even more intense. In response to US demands to immediately release their citizen, Erdogan said he was ready to exchange him for Gulen. As a result, Washington imposed sanctions against two Turkish ministers and doubled the import duties on aluminum and steel for Turkey. It struck the Turkish economy and the rate of the lira, which was already going through hard times. But it seems that Erdogan is ready to sacrifice the economic well-being of millions of Turks, just to prove that he will not bend before Trump.

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Erdogan uses the rich traditions of anti-Americanism in the country. According to opinion polls, today the majority of citizens of the republic have a negative attitude towards the United States. The lack of high-quality expertise and open discussion of foreign policy problems leads to the fact that the population does not receive any other information than that which the state propaganda presents to it. And it presents a conflict with the United States as a struggle for the political independence of a country led by a strong-willed national leader.

The Erdogan government uses rapprochement with Moscow as an instrument of influence on Washington. For example, the purchase of the C-400 air defense missile systems, of course, meets the security interests of Turkey, but at the same time sends an unequivocal signal to its Western partners. At the same time, the aircraft of the latest generation, which Ankara intended to buy from the United States, it may never receive. If the Americans break the contract, it will mean that the cooperation of Washington and Ankara in the military-technical sphere is curtailed. If, nevertheless, the cars are handed over to Turkey, this will be a sign that, although Americans don’t like Erdogan, his policy does not harm their interests.

It can be said that, while Erdogan is in power, American-Turkish relations will remain strained, because one of the main causes of the crisis is the authoritarian habits of the Turkish leader and Turkey’s withdrawal from Western standards of democracy. But the desire for undivided power - the core policy of Erdogan. And, it seems, he intends to force the US to accept the fact that Turkey is changing, even if because of this, bilateral relations are degrading even more.

Originally published in Russian: http://www.profile.ru/politika/item/126922-i-ne-drug-i-ne-vrag

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