Turkey is changing before our eyes
Robert Nicholson | Clear moral and political lines can help us navigate the crises to come
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One of America's oldest allies in the Near East has become increasingly dangerous as Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries to build a new Turkish empire at the expense of his neighbors, weaponizing the Syrian refugee crisis to threaten Greece and backing Azerbaijan's aggression against the tiny Christian country of Armenia. And all that's just in the last few weeks. Our response to Turkey’s growing aggression should be measured yet bold, nuanced yet proactive, and might start with the evacuation of U.S. troops from the country before things get worse.
There is no denying that the Republic of Turkey has been a reliable secular democracy for much of the last century, faithfully serving the NATO mission as a strategic bulwark against Russia in the north and unstable Arab and Persian regimes in the south and east. The U.S. air base at Incirlik, located a few miles from the Apostle Paul’s hometown of Tarsus, has guarded Eurasia's geopolitical pivot for almost 70 years.
It's for that reason that American presidents typically look the other way when faced with Turkey’s more erratic behavior—its not-so-democratic democracy; its aggression against Greeks, Armenians, Syriacs, and Kurds; its ongoing occupation of Cyprus; its suppression of religious freedom at home; its support of Islamist groups abroad; and its increasingly anti-Western words and deeds. That isn't even mentioning the fact that Turkish regimes, including the present one, may have done more to harm Christians in the last century and a half than all the Arab and Persian states combined.
Things have changed since the Cold War. While Turkey may not be an enemy, it isn’t a friend either. Erdogan has pushed his country away from its pro-Western roots and launched wars in former Ottoman lands as the centennial of the empire's collapse approaches in 2022. His goal is to revive some expanded version of Turkish rule across the region to restore his country’s prestige and prosperity.
Erdogan’s approval rating has plummeted at home amid an economic meltdown. His hunger for conquest combined with Turkey's fragile political environment—all of it moving toward national elections in 2023—is a recipe for disaster, which is why the United States should act before it is too late.
One of the best arguments for a strong U.S.-Turkey relationship is that it keeps Turkey from an even more conservative kind of Islamic politics. But that shift has already been taking place for two decades. In the meantime, the region has been blessed with new alliances among eastern Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, and among Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Abraham Accords. This growing collaboration among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim majority countries makes it unnecessary for the United States to keep tolerating Turkey’s bad behavior.
A better policy might be to evacuate U.S. forces from Turkish soil, double-down on new friendships that link the Mediterranean with the Near East, and draw moral and political red lines that can help us navigate the crises to come.
The centerpiece of this policy, dismantling the base at Incirlik, would be consistent with the Biden administration’s tougher line on Turkey, and, if the base were moved to Greece's Souda Bay, would throw further weight behind the new Mediterranean-Near East alliances. Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a compelling case for why closing Incirlik would actually improve America’s position in the region, as have others. In any case, this year's humiliating exit from Afghanistan offers a good opportunity to reassess America's military footprint in the Islamic world.
There may be domestic benefits to moving the base, too, as withdrawing from Turkey would be welcomed by many Democrats and Republicans alike—and not just because both want to roll back military commitments abroad. Lawmakers gave overwhelming bipartisan support for recent bills recognizing the Armenian-Greek-Assyrian genocide and blocking Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 air defense systems and F-35 and F-16 fighter jets.
Things in Asia Minor will get worse before they get better. We have no reason to make Turkey a greater enemy than it is; nor can we stop Turks from moving toward a more religious vision of society and politics. What we can do is protect ourselves and our allies, as much as possible, from the needless diplomatic predicaments that are sure to intensify in the coming years.
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