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U.S., Turkey Face Growing Foreign Policy Divide

June 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Kwame Holman reports on the growing divide between the U.S. and longtime ally Turkey, as the country seeks to establish foreign policy independence through its recent fuel swap negotiations with Iran.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the Turkey story. A U.S. ally in the Middle East starts going its own way.

Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Along the waters of the Bosphorus, Istanbul has been, through centuries, the symbolic frontier between East and West. Once the seat of Christian and Islamic empires, the modern Turkey finds itself again straddling two worlds.

This week, at that ancient crossroads, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved to strengthen his role as an emerging leader in the Islamic world.

Omer Taspinar, professor of international relations, National Defense University: Turkey definitely feels more self-confident these days.

KWAME HOLMAN: Omer Taspinar is a professor of international relations at the National Defense University. Born in Turkey, he’s now an American citizen.

OMER TASPINAR: There’s a sense of, basically, patriotism and nationalism in the country. And this government wants to follow a more independent foreign policy.

In that sense, I don’t think what we see is really an Islamization of Turkish foreign policy, but more a nationalist and self-confident and increasingly independent foreign policy.

KWAME HOLMAN: And that independence was on display at a meeting of the Turkish Arab Economic Forum, where the talk was of trade and recent tumult.

WOMAN: Will those against please raise their hand?

KWAME HOLMAN: One flash point: Turkey’s Wednesday vote against United Nations sanctions designed to slow the Iranian nuclear program. The Turks, along with Brazil, opposed a united front of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China.

Turkey and Brazil struck a deal last month with Iran to ship low-enriched uranium out of the Islamic republic in return for medical reactor fuel. That deal was designed to avoid sanctions. But it was dismissed by the U.S. and others as insufficient, because it would have allowed Tehran to retain enough nuclear fuel to make a weapon.

At the Istanbul forum yesterday, Erdogan spoke of the sanctions vote and his approach to Iran, a neighbor of Turkey. But he broadened his comments to include a not-so-veiled critique of American involvement in the region.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish prime minister (through translator): Everything should be solved on the table. Arms, embargoes and exclusion are not working. The world has seen examples of this and has paid the heavy price.

You see how we are paying a heavy price for this in Iraq. We are paying the price in Afghanistan. Millions of people have died. There are hundreds of thousands of widows. Who will account for this?

KWAME HOLMAN: At a NATO meeting in Brussels today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates became the latest senior American official to comment on the longtime NATO ally’s action.

Gates said: “I will be honest, I was disappointed in Turkey’s vote on the Iranian sanctions,” adding, “Allies don’t always agree on things, but we move forward from here.”

But Turkey is looking beyond its relations with the U.S., says Omer Taspinar.

OMER TASPINAR: Well, from the perspective of Turkey, U.S. foreign policy in the last 10 years in the Middle East has not been a great success story. They get the respect that they believe they deserve more in Russia, in Syria, in Iran, in China. And, therefore, they are looking for alternatives, and they are not — they’re not willing to put all their eggs into the Western basket.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it is relations with America’s strongest ally in the region, Israel, that have created another flash point between the Turks and the Americans.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through translator): Nobody should have any doubts that Turkey will demand the rights for the murdered civilians within international law.

KWAME HOLMAN: That was Prime Minister Erdogan on Tuesday, denouncing Israel’s raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for blockaded Gaza. The attack killed nine civilians, and added new strains between Israel and its once-friendly Mideast neighbor.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the strict embargo it maintains on the Hamas-controlled sliver of Palestinian land has been a focus of Erdogan’s.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through translator): Gaza is like an open-air prison, because it’s completely isolated from the rest of the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shortly after Israel ended its invasion of Gaza in January 2009, Operation Cast Lead, during which 1,400 Palestinians were killed, the Turkish prime minister had an angry encounter with Israeli President Shimon Peres, amid the normally staid confines of the Davos World Economic Forum.

SHIMON PERES, Israeli president: What would you do if you would have in Istanbul every night 10 rockets or 100 rockets?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: One minute. One minute.

MAN: Well, you know…

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: One minute. You must — one minute.

MAN: OK.

MAN: … to our host.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through translator): I don’t think I will come back to Davos after this, because you don’t let me speak.

KWAME HOLMAN: This week, despite the tensions with Israel and the U.S., Erdogan said Turkey wasn’t turning away from its Western orientation. At the forum in Istanbul, he said those who allege that Turkey has broken away from the West are the intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda.