Friday, November 26, 2010
Following the Turkish agreement on the NATO missile defense system last week in Lisbon, contrary to expectations, Turkey’s perception problem and questions about its direction have not ended in Washington. Instead, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s stern messages to Israel from Lebanon, where he visited this week, the new matrix of Washington politics since the midterm elections, in which the Republican opposition is much more stronger, and a set of issues expected to stem from the missile shield system continue to promise a hideous winter for the Turkish-American & Israeli, or TAI, relations.
The big question this week was why Turkey’s consensual agreement on the NATO missile system did not ease the jittery relations between Turkey and the U.S. Wasn’t the biggest contemporary sticking point between the two allies just nicely resolved? Turkey’s opposition to the missile system would have indeed damaged the image of Turkey far worse than many would have anticipated. However, in the real world, Turkey had very few other options beside accepting the new NATO defense plan to begin with, as I concluded my Oct. 15 column, five weeks before the summit, “What will or can Turkey do beside support the new vision, willingly or unwillingly?” Turkey, indeed, could have not opposed the rest of the 27 members of the alliance’s decision to defend themselves just because it did not share the same concerns.
Nonetheless, despite last week’s agreement, it appears that discussions over Turkey’s position will be still up for debate for the next few months. This week, the most relevant senior American diplomatic and military officials, when asked, said that it is indeed not certain if Turkey will actually host the radar installment, and Erdoğan confirmed that the decision has not yet been determined by his government either.
Discrepancies over concerns, questions and statements about the NATO missile shield are the crisp indicators that shed light on the edgy relations between Washington and Ankara these days, and they come to the surface when one finds the audacity to compare notes and do sort of a cross-examining of the senior administration officials, as I just did this week in Washington.
For instance, at the Brookings Institution this week, U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder, who spent years preparing for the summit, chuckled and clearly rebuked me when I repeated Turkish President Abdullah Gül's statement over Turkey’s shaping role at the NATO summit, “If Turkey was not in the summit, the summit would have been concluded within 10 minutes.” Then he snubbed another question in which I, once more, voiced Ankara’s repeated concerns over an Israeli role related to the shield; Daalder stated coldly and briefly: “NATO is requiring this capability to protect its territory. Period.”
U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis also gave a press briefing and one of my questions, a much-vocalized talking point in Turkey especially among pundits, was on which country will be making the most money out of the planned defense shield, which is expected to cost billions of dollars. The initial response by admiral, once more, was a spontaneous chuckle, then he continued: “The good news for NATO is that the United States has already borne a great deal of the cost of the research and development of the systems. For example, the Aegis defense system was developed here. That will be adapted and moved ashore. So a great deal of the costs have already been spent in the development of the R&D portion of this thing. In terms of the European side of this thing, the cost is actually relatively low, because it's a command and control system that plugs into hardware that is being offered up by the United States at this point. So the command and control side of this thing will be in the low hundreds of millions of dollars. The actual infrastructure is, indeed, in the billions of dollars, but much of those costs will be borne by the United States.”
Before the summit, senior U.S. officials shied away from giving any kind of description about the command and control structure of the new missile shield, and simply stated that this issue will be worked out in coming months. Immediately following the summit, this week, it sounded like they have a pretty good idea of what the system should look like. According to Daalder, the issue “is actually not that complicated. ... NATO already has an integrated air missile defense system that has been operation under the single command-control system for decades, with the NATO supreme allied commander in charge. And we are going to have a very similar set up for the missile defense system.”
In brief, where the radar component of the shield will be deployed, and whether the Turkish administration will be satisfied by the described-precise command structure and Israel’s role in the whole cast, will be still the sticking points that are expected to suck a lot of the oxygen from the TAI relations during the first half of 2011.
The other significant menace for the U.S.-Turkey relations is undoubtedly Turkey’s worsening relations with Israel. I had a lengthy phone conversation with Mr. Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International, a global Jewish community group, a week ago and one thing clear to me from the whole conversation was that vociferous Jewish Americans have no hope for better relations between Turkey and Israel, as long as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government in Ankara.
Make no mistake: I, among many other observers, do believe that Israel owes an apology and that reparations must paid to those families who experienced losses following the flotilla incident.
However, it is also clear to me that Ankara has no interest in giving the Israeli administration the chance to step in that direction. Because it is a well-known secret that if Ankara really wants to make things better between the two, it has plenty of diplomatic skills to create that environment.
Erdoğan’s attack on Israel was met with a great enthusiasm in the streets of the Middle East, as his hero’s welcome confirmed once more in Lebanon this week. Though the same attacks met with an even greater distaste and increased hostility in the streets of Washington and worse, the halls of the Congress.
The Nov. 2 midterm elections reverberated the Israeli lobby’s power in Washington and made it even stronger; however, the Netanyahu government appears to be isolated in many parts of the world. As Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, wrote on his blog on Thursday: “Netanyahu is telling various close friends that he has the U.S. Congress in his pocket and can largely ignore the White House. ... Netanyahu wants to bring down President Obama, when it is Obama who should be destabilizing the far right coalition of the Netanyahu government.”
Some commentaries appeared this week in the Turkish press which suggested that the Turkey-U.S. relations are going through the toughest period in the last 40 years. I have not been around that long and cannot echo the statement fully. What I am afraid is to predict sadly that the TAI relations might be entering into one of the most gruesome winters of recent history.