As the date of the Turkish presidential elections approaches, the contours of outside interference in Turkish society become clearer. In the first month of 2023, John Bolton, former national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, said that if incumbent Turkish President Recep Erdoğan remains in power, the question of suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO should be raised. At the same time, John Bolton already believes that another Erdoğan victory will be illegitimate because such election results can only be manipulated. In other words, the American politician defines a priori who and how Turkish voters should or should not vote, based on the highest interests of… the USA.
Overall, the state of US-Turkish relations over the past two decades cannot be described as stable and befitting strategic allies (including as NATO members). Turkey has traditionally not been the most predictable and reliable partner, but the national passions of Turkish politicians for strengthening an independent course vis-à-vis the United States have regularly created crisis situations for Washington in the second half of the twentieth century. While Washington had succeeded three times before in bringing convenient political forces to power through military coups (1960, 1971, 1980) and keeping Turkey in its circle of control (subordination), this tactic did not pay off in the first quarter of the 21st century. The failure of the July 2016 uprising to overthrow an unwanted president, Erdoğan, is a case in point.
This situation is due in no small part to internal political and economic changes in Turkey itself, in which the role of a number of Turkish politicians (such as the pragmatic Turgut Özal, the authoritarian Necamettin Erbakan, and of course the charismatic Recep Erdoğan) is crucial. On the one hand, the United States opposes the Turkish course of reviving imperial status and radicalism (especially the strategies of neo-Ottomanism and neo-Pan-Turkism), because Washington stands for a monopoly construction of the world order under its hegemony after the collapse of the USSR. On the other hand, the United States is critical of Erdoğan’s policy of strengthening Turkey’s regional (and even more so, strategic) partnership with Russia. America feels offended by Erdoğan’s military deal with Putin on the S-400 SAM system, Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria and Transcaucasia, Turkish mediation in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, and Ankara’s boycott of the entire sanctions package against Russia. Thus, Erdoğan is becoming an unwelcome partner of the US presidential administration.
Washington believes that the tough sanctions of the collective West (US + European countries) against Russia may lose their effect if Ankara expands economic and military cooperation with Moscow. At the same time, the US “forgets” that in the not so distant 1990s-2000s it used a lot of efforts and resources to make Turkey an important transit route for Caspian oil and gas exports to Europe.
Turkey’s longstanding efforts and aspirations for European integration have been unsuccessful in terms of EU membership. The government of Recep Erdoğan sees this as a kind of insult to Turkey, one of the oldest members of NATO, on condition that the former countries of the socialist community of Eastern and Southeastern Europe and the former Baltic Soviet republics, where politics prevailed instead of economics and law, join the EU as a group. And Ankara sees this as partly in the interest of the United States.
The first serious concerns in US-Turkish relations in the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan years surfaced in 2003, when the Grand National Assembly of Turkey refused to allow the US 4th Army to pass through Turkish territory to invade Iraq. The US Ambassador to Turkey, Eric Steven Edelman (2003-2005), “failed” at the time to push for a US decision on this seemingly important issue (although the Turkish parliament voted only once, the Americans did not insist on a second discussion). In reality, however, as time has shown, Washington was not interested in a positive decision by Turkey on this issue because the United States and Britain understood Ankara’s considerable interest in the Kurdish issue in Iraq and that it would have demanded its shares in, say, Mosul and Kirkuk (including Kurdish oil). Indirect evidence of this version was the fate of Ambassador Eric Edelman himself, who later received a career promotion and was named the Pentagon’s deputy director for the Middle East (although the ambassador should have received a demotion for such an impressive military and political failure in an allied country).
Turkey then actually asked the United States for freedom of action in Iraqi Kurdistan and for substantial funds in the form of a soft loan almost comparable to the size of the national debt. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxons did not want to share the “laurels of success” in Iraq with the Turks because the goals of their Middle East policy did not coincide with Turkey’s interests.
John Bolton is obviously not just proclaiming his own opinion of Turkey, or more specifically, of its inconvenient President Erdoğan. Rather, this is the opinion of the US political elite and authorities, regardless of party affiliation. Senior officials at the National Security Council and the US State Department in the 2000s stated to their confidential interlocutors more than once that US-Turkey relations are becoming more problematic every year, and America stumbles over the “Turkish stone” in the Levant almost every time. Add to that US-Turkish differences in Syria over the Kurdish issue, in Cyprus and Greece over territorial disputes, and Ankara’s claims to certain oil and gas fields in the Greek sector of the Mediterranean and in the post-Soviet Transcaucasia.
The luminary of American political analysis Anthony Cordesman once remarked, “Much of what you hear from American pundits about Turkey is undoubtedly true, but that is only part of the truth, not the whole truth … After you spend a day at the National Security Council, you either do not hear about it at all, or you hear about it in a series of two dozen other problems.” Well-known American experts (notably James Jatras, Bulent Alireza, Soner Cagaptay, Fiona Hill, Wayne Merry, John Sitilidis) noted in the 2000s that the problems in Turkish-American relations had increased and that they are systemic. In the US Congress, Turkey has become unpopular, and the pro-Turkish lobby has effectively collapsed.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can afford to publicly criticize the US and other NATO allies (including France and Germany). Finally, Turkey today uses the Kurdish issue and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to block the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, which is also in line with Russia’s military-political interests. America sees this as Erdoğan’s subversive activities in relation to the North Atlantic Alliance.
All this led to the fact that America began to call Recep Erdoğan “the sick man of Europe.” How the fate of the Ottoman Empire ended, which received such an unflattering political diagnosis from Britain for the first time in the 19th century, is well known to history after the results of the First World War.
However, the same John Bolton who today once again refers to Turkey as the “sick man of Europe” is in fact referring not to Turkey itself, as a NATO country under the control of the United States, but to the “disobedient” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who got carried away by the pro-Russian course and disobedience of the Western “Commonwealth.” Consequently, the United States is by no means giving up on Turkey (its advantageous geographical position with control over the strategic straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles), but only intends to use next year’s electoral process to get rid of the disagreeable Erdoğan, which, as the Azerbaijani website minval.az notes, is scheduled to take place on May 14, 2023 (Erdoğan apparently decided to bring the elections forward by a month to surprise his opponents).
Bolton’s speech is reminiscent of a threat that can be associated less with Turkey’s exclusion from NATO and more with an assessment of the extent of the threat posed by Erdoğan’s policies, comparable to the role of NATO in the United States. That is, Washington can use force against Erdoğan because the price of the facility’s director and the facility itself are very different.
As you may know, during the Cold War, the CIA used Operation Gladio in allied countries (in Europe and specifically in Turkey) to prevent pro-Communist forces from gaining power. In Turkey, these operations were dubbed “counter-guerrilla,” and they included targets such as Kurds and leftist politicians (journalists) in addition to communists. In these developments in those years, the American and Turkish intelligence services actively used the radical ideology of Pan-Turkism and its military wing, the Gray Wolves organization. Today, however, there is no longer a communist threat, and Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), chaired by Devlet Bahçeli, which is the flagship of global pan-Turkism and traditionally supported by up to 10% of Turkish voters, is a political ally of ruling Development and Justice Party Chairman Recep Erdoğan.
However, Turkish radical nationalists (Pan-Turkists) were involved in the murder of Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov and Ambassador Andrei Yerkhov. Therefore, the well-known principle “the blow comes from where it is not expected” can be used again in provocations against Erdoğan.
Whether the head of the CIA, William Burns, would decide to take such an action without the consent of his closest colleague and ally, Richard Moore of the SIS, is difficult to say. In any case, Moore, the head of British intelligence and former ambassador of the United Kingdom to Turkey, is a personal friend of President Erdoğan. In a civilized society, it is not customary to abandon friends. But how much is this formula in line with the traditions of British diplomacy once (on March 1, 1848) established by Prime Minister Lord Henry Palmerston: “England has no eternal friends and enemies, England has eternal interests” – time will tell. One thing is clear: according to the principles of the same Palmerston, England has a hard life whenever no one is at war with Russia.
One can only wish Turkey stability and peace during and after the election of its leader.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor of Political Science, Professor, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.