By Ivan Eland
The mano-a-mano feud between two strongmen—President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—has gotten personal and has resulted in U.S. economic sanctions and a doubling of American tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. The row centers on the Turkish government kidnapping of a U.S. preacher to use as hostage to trade for the extradition of Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher who lives in exile in the United States and who Mr. Erdogan claims fomented a failed coup in Turkeyin 2016.
The dust-up has led to instability in world financial markets and led Mr. Erdogan, to make the United States jealous, to threaten to get “new friends”—alluding to better relationships with Russia, Iran, and Syria, which are U.S. adversaries. In American security circles, Turkey is regarded as centrally located between Europe and unstable Central Asia and the Middle East.
The country also contains the Turkish Straits, which are waterways between the Black Sea and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Traditional thinking goes that Turkey’s prime real estate makes it militarily strategic. That’s why, although Turkey is mostly in Asia and has had trouble historically retaining a viable democracy, it was admitted into NATO, which was supposed to be an alliance of European democracies.
Yet, while Turkey may be strategic to Europe, especially in physically blocking refugees from flowing in from Middle Eastern conflicts, its value to U.S. security has been vastly overstated. Turkey may be blocking refugees from Syria into Europe, but it also helped roil the massive Syrian civil war—which caused the refugee influx and has killed a half million Syrians—by initially letting Islamist extremists and their weapons and supplies pass through its territory in an attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime.
Because Syrian President Bashar Assad, with Russian help, has beaten back such insurgents, Mr. Erdogan’s initial attempt to overthrow Mr. Assad would probably limit Turkey’s rapprochement with either of those countries. Although Turkish-Russian relations have improved since Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft supporting forces aligned with Mr. Assad, the historical rivalry between the two countries over the centuries, especially jockeying over the Turkish Straits, also likely constrains improvement in relations between them.
In short, the reality is that Turkey needs the United States more than vice versa. Turkeyjoined the NATO alliance because it is in a rough neighborhood and needs a great power from outside the region to protect it. Although the Turkish military is large, without the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance, it would be no match in a war against Russia, which started against that country directly or indirectly by first getting into conflict with a Russian-backed client state, such as Syria.
Of course, Turkish utter dependence on a U.S. security guarantee through NATO is downplayed by the American foreign policy elite, inside and outside of government, because they emphasize retaining Turkish help in policing the Middle East and Central Asia. However, Turkish importance to American security is much less than it is to U.S. imperial policing.
In fact, the United States should pay much less attention to the Middle East and Central Asia than it has been in recent decades. America has become bogged down and distracted in brushfire wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, with its attention and resources being drained away from the looming rise of China in East Asia. With a worldwide market for oil (the OPEC cartel has always been feckless), it was never cost-effective to use U.S. diplomacy and military power to ensure its flow—as long as making money provided lucrative incentives to get the commodity on the high seas from somewhere. With the fracking boom again making the United States the world’s largest oil producer, even less incentive exists to get bogged down in Middle Eastern quagmires.
If oil is one pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East, ensuring Israel’s security is the other. Yet Israel is now a wealthy country that has the resources for its own security, has won all the wars it has fought militarily (if not politically), and has neighbors that are reasonably friendly (Egypt and Jordan), distracted by turmoil (Syria), or cooperating with it in secret (the Gulf Arab countries). Those last countries are cooperating with Israel against a common adversary—Iran.
Yet Iran would have been much less of a threat to Israel had President Trump not welshed on U.S. participation in the multilateral agreement with Iran to contain its nuclear program short of providing it a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from world economic sanctions. Even now, Israel has 200 to 400 nuclear weapons and a much better economy than Iran. The ragtag groups that Iran sponsors indirectly against Israel—Hezbollah and Hamas—are not existential threats to Israel. Lastly, Turkey and Israel used to be quiet allies, but Mr. Erdogan took Turkey into the pro-Arab camp, so Turkey is of less help nowadays to the Israelis.
Thus, the United States needs to pander to Turkey only if it still needlessly desires to be the beat cop in the perpetual turmoil of the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia. If the Trump administration instead focuses more tightly on U.S. security, Turkey needs the United States a lot more than vice versa.
This article was also published at The Washington Times and republished with permission.