ISTANBUL — Remember the U.S.-Turkish alliance? Not long ago, President Obama was proclaiming that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was his favorite Middle Eastern statesman, and one of very few foreign leaders with whom he had forged a "bond of trust." Yet today, ties between Washington and Ankara are unmistakably on the downswing. The culprits are a quartet of issues that cumulatively have soured relations between Washington and Ankara — and which promise to keep the once-vibrant relationship at a low ebb, at least for the foreseeable future.
First, there is America's receding strategic footprint in the Middle East. Last Fall, in aninterview with the New York Times, National Security Advisor Susan Rice laid out a new, "more modest" vision of U.S. policy toward the region, consisting of just three strategic priorities: brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians; dismantling Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, and; attaining a diplomatic solution to the long-standing crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Other regional issues — from the continued turmoil of the "Arab Spring" to security problems in North Africa and the Middle East — were no longer primary American concerns, Rice made clear.
At first blush, you might expect this dynamic to be beneficial for Turkey. After all, the Turkish government has articulated an ambitious foreign policy vision in recent years, and actively attempted to style itself as a "model" for the Arab Spring nations to follow. America, meanwhile, has made clear that it needs reliable deputies to promote its interests in the region — a role that, not long ago, Turkey would have been a natural candidate to fill.
No longer. The increasingly authoritarian bent of Erdogan's government has given American policymakers — once enthusiastic about the prospects for strategic partnership with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — serious pause. So has the domestic "civil war" now taking place between the AKP and the cemaat, a shadowy yet influential socio-religious movement led by controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen. That conflict has been brewing for some time, punctuated by the shutdown ofsocial media sites, a purging of civil servants, harassment of journalists and numerous other tell-tale signs of an all-out political turf war.
America has studiously tried to stay out of the fray, describing it as a purely domestic affair. But Erdogan's recent insistence that he will seek an extradition request for Gulen (who resides in Pennsylvania) has put official Washington in an untenable position. Acquiescence to Erdogan's demands is well-nigh unthinkable, on both legal and political grounds. But a refusal will virtually guarantee that bilateral ties take a further hit, with the AKP concluding that Washington chose the cemaat over them. (Indeed, there are some in Turkey who believe that Erdogan is banking on just such an outcome, which he will then use to burnish his nationalist and anti-American credentials.)
Washington and Ankara likewise remain fundamentally at odds over Syria. Turkey has long urged the U.S. to follow its lead and take a more active role in support of the Syrian opposition. It has done so for good reason; with the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey now approaching one million, the conflict taking place next door is rapidly becoming an overriding strategic issue for Ankara. But policymakers in Washington, worried over the increasingly Islamist bent of Syria's fractured opposition forces, have hung back — garnering lasting Turkish ire in the process.
Finally, there is Turkey's uncertain role in NATO. Western nations have long harbored hopes that Turkey — a Cold War stalwart of the Alliance — could become NATO's emissary to the contemporary Middle East. But the collapse of Turkey's strategic partnership with Israel, its support of opposition (including jihadist) forces in Syria, and its persistent anti-Western conspiratorialism have made Ankara an increasingly weak link in the Atlantic Alliance. Most recently, Turkey's flirtation with the acquisition of Chinese-made missile defenses has raised concerns in the West that it could end up compromising the integrity of NATO communications.
The state of the U.S.-Turkish union, in other words, is deeply troubled. The current divergence between Washington and Ankara can't be smoothed over by cosmetic changes (such as the impending retirement of current U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone). Rather, it is the product of a more fundamental parting of the ways now taking place between the two countries. Turkey and America, once staunch comrades in arms, are now simply acquaintances. In the future, if current trends continue, they might become even less.