Turkey is a long way from the North Atlantic, yet it is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It joined in 1952, just three years after NATO’s founding. Greece was admitted at the same time. Both countries were targets of Soviet expansionism—an ambition former President Harry Truman was determined to contain.
“It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” he told a joint session of Congress.
This was the essence of what became known as the Truman Doctrine. Adopted on a bipartisan basis—with former Sen. Arthur Vandenberg playing the most significant role on the Republican side—it expressed core American values and interests. Seventy years later, can you think of a more accurate one-sentence description of the policy under which Americans are now helping Ukrainians defend themselves against Russian aggression?
Turkey has always been a unique NATO ally. It straddles Europe and the Middle East. It was a Muslim-majority state that separated mosque and state. It has been economically dynamic despite not having oil. And it seemed to be democratizing.
Since 2003, however, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the nation’s strongman—first as prime minister, then as president, gaining enhanced powers in 2017. He now occupies a 1,150-room palace fit for an Ottoman sultan.
A decade or so ago, he was said to be only “mildly” Islamist. Over time, however, he has lent support, in one way or another, to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al-Qaeda affiliate groups, the Islamic Republic of Iran and even the Islamic State.
Charges that Turkey has become “a permissive jurisdiction for illicit and terror finance” cannot be ignored, especially with Turkey’s second-largest state-owned bank, Halkbank, accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of laundering more than $20 billion for Tehran between 2012-2015
Erdoğan has become a problem child in other ways as well. He jails journalists who offend him—only China’s rulers have jailed more. In 2017, he decided to purchase the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. This forced the United States to evict Turkey from the F-35 fighter program. The last thing the Pentagon wants is to give Russian technical experts the opportunity to rehearse identifying, tracking and targeting the F-35—information Moscow could then share with Beijing, its strategic partner.
Sweden and Finland have now applied to join NATO—their response to Vladimir Putin’s brutal and imperialist war. NATO members are welcoming them—except for Erdoğan. He is threatening to blackball the Nordic democracies.
He can do that because new members must receive the unanimous consent of all 30 existing members. “Neither of these countries has a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organizations,” Erdoğan tut-tutted. “How can we trust them?” He was referring to various Kurdish groups.
Let me state my position clearly: Violence against civilians for political purposes is both immoral and criminal. But, as noted above, Erdoğan has not upheld that principle unwaveringly.
Saying that terrorism is the wrong way to pursue the Kurdish cause is not the same as saying that the Kurdish cause is wrong. Numbering about 30 million, the Kurds are an ancient people of the Middle East who, unlike other ancient peoples of the Middle East—e.g., Turks, Arabs, Jews—have no state of their own.
They do enjoy significant autonomy in northern Iraq, a positive result of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, whose persecution of the Kurds included the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1988.
However, Kurds are denied autonomy—a more modest aspiration than independence—in their ancestral lands in Turkey, as well as in their ancestral lands in Iran.
On their ancestral lands in Syria, they are fighting for whatever self-determination they can get. As leaders of the American-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, they also are combatting the battered but not yet beaten Islamic State.
Sweden has welcomed as many as 100,000 Kurdish immigrants. Many have become citizens, and a small number have won elections to parliament. Are some sympathetic toward Kurdish groups that engage in terrorism? I think that’s likely.
The Kurdish minority in Finland is much smaller and less influential. Erdoğan has demanded the extradition of six alleged terrorists from that country.
More broadly, he wants both countries to take a harder line toward the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is based in the mountainous regions of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, and has been designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization, and the YPG (the People’s Protection Units), a leading faction within the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northern and eastern Syrian territories that Turkish forces seek to control. The YPG has been designated a terrorist organization only by Turkey and Qatar.
Erdoğan has other grievances—some defensible, some not.
How does this story end? The Turkey experts I rely on believe that Erdoğan is savvy enough to recognize that, in the long term, he doesn’t benefit by being the spoiler who blocked an opportunity to strengthen NATO and prevent Putin from achieving one of his war aims.
If that’s right, he’ll bargain hard, win some concessions and declare victory, thus demonstrating to his domestic audiences how he stands up to the arrogant Europeans and Americans. And then he’ll welcome Sweden and Finland to the club.
Still, this contretemps serves as a reminder that Turkey, which has NATO’s largest military after America’s, has become its least reliable member, and that, within this pro-democratic alliance, it has an increasingly authoritarian president-for-life.
A bridge between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has not become. That’s a disappointment of historic proportions.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”