One striking finding in the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey—and it has been true in other polls they and others have done going back a decade now– is the very low regard that Turks have for the United States, for Barack Obama, and even for Americans as a people. The only countries holding less regard for the U.S. in the survey are Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
These latter are understandable. But Turkey is harder to explain. The U.S. has military bases there, has had them there for a long time, and close cooperation continues between the U.S. and Turkish militaries—a high percentage of U.S. aerial shipments of supplies to Afghanistan go through bases in Turkey. And Turkey has had troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO security force since the early months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Moreover, Turkey in 2011 allowed the U.S. to station sophisticated missile-defense radar there to counter Iran.
The U.S. has been a stalwart supporter of Turkey’s desire to enter the European Union, an attitude the rest of Europe doesn’t always share. The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed the rebels in next door Syria in a much more forceful way than the U.S. government has, for which the U.S. government has expressed appreciation.
So what gives? Why do the people of such a close U.S. ally disapprove of the U.S. so strongly?
But most experts and analysts in Turkey think this low regard for America stems from specific events dating back to the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, which the Turks adamantly opposed, the increasing split within Turkey between Islamists and secularists as reflected in the recent mass demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul, and to issues of how Turks see their place in the world.
First, the specifics events which have harmed the U.S. image in Turkish eyes.
Turks opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Turks, to the surprise and consternation of the George W. Bush administration, did not join in with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Turkish parliament voted against a plan to allow U.S. troops access to its land and harbors to aid in the invasion. Turks feared two things: a destabilized Iraq on their long southern border, and that any U.S. action there would strengthen the hands of Kurds in Iraq. Turkey’s population is 20 percent Kurdish and Ankara is very sensitive about any notion of a separate Kurdish state, as some Kurds want. In addition, Turkey has been in a long running low-level war with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, PKK, a separatist terrorist group that operates out of the Kurdish parts of northern Iraq.
Turkish fears on the results of the Iraq war have been warranted in part, but not in whole. Iraq continues to be unstable, but ironically, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq has become stable, rich, and more democratic. Turkish businesses have benefited greatly from trade with and investment in the Kurdish region of Iraq (and the rest of Iraq too) and in the past couple of years Prime Minister Erdogan has been improving ties with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, based in Irbil, and turning away from Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Maliki, who Turkey regards as too close to Iran, and inept. Turkey recently signed oil agreements with the Kurdish Regional Government, the first time it has done that after stating for years that Ankara would only deal with Baghdad.
The “hooding” incident on July 4, 2003. A decade ago, in the months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a U.S. military unit raid in Suleimaniya, in the Kurdistan region, arrested by mistake a group of Turkish Special Forces soldiers operating in the area and placed hoods over them (shades of Abu Ghraib of later years) causing intense anger among Turks. The incident was not much publicized in the U.S. but was huge news in Turkey, which felt its military was horribly disrespected by its longtime ally. The Turkish soldiers were released after 60 hours of detention and interrogation and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later expressed regret for the incident.
The May 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident. This was the incident in which a flotilla of Turkish humanitarian relief ships, threatening to break the Israeli-imposed sea blockade of Gaza, was intercepted by Israeli commandos. Five of the six ships were seized peacefully, but activists and humanitarians on the last ship resisted the Israeli military landing party with homemade weapons, and nine Turks and one Turkish American were killed by the commandos. All of Turkey was outraged by this, and Prime Minister Erdogan and his government did little to discourage the anger. The fact that the U.S. Congress passed resolutions in support of Israel, and not Turkey, and that the U.S. government was perceived by Turks as siding with Israel further soured Turks’ views of the United States.
Also in May, 2010, the U.S. opposed a deal that Turkey and Brazil negotiated with Iran over its nuclear fuel. The details of this deal are arcane, involving as they do the relative enrichment of nuclear fuel, and what in fact are Iranian intentions, but the U.S. blocked this deal at the United Nations, a move that Turks resented.
U.S. House of Representatives resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The House Foreign Affairs committee has periodically tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a sense-of-Congress resolution condemning the systematic killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. The Armenian American community in America is strong and proud; they help fuel this. I know, I grew up in Southern California, where that community is numerous.
But truthfully, the Turks absolutely hate this. Every time it comes up, they threaten to withdraw their ambassador and a huge lobbying fight erupts on Capitol Hill to defeat the resolution. Both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have fiercely opposed such resolutions as harmful to U.S.-Turkish relations. Is the resolution relatively innocuous? Yes. Was the systematic killing of Armenians genocide? Yes. But does it drive the Turks crazy? Yes. Turks today see that as the acts of the Ottoman Turks, not the Turks of Kemal Ataturk, or his modernizers and their descendants. These resolutions are just not helpful.
Splits in Turkey between Islamists and secularists. Turkish analysts say that the United States can’t win in the current Turkish political climate. The pro-Islamist party of Prime Minister Erdogan has become increasingly unhappy with Israeli policies over time, partly for domestic political reasons, but partly because the Justice and Development Party is becoming more Islamic. And Turkish public opinion polls show that Islamists and secularists increasingly dislike Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, even though pre-Erdogan, Israel and Turkey had close ties.
Secularists, meanwhile, think that both Obama and George W. Bush have been too chummy with Erdogan. Secularists in Turkey really don’t like the increasingly Islamist bent of the country, with its restrictions on alcohol, head scarves for women, and other pro-Islamist policies. If you’ve been to Turkey, and I have, the western, urban part of the country is very European and cosmopolitan. Secularist Turks like it that way. They do not like what is going on there; hence the recent protests in Taksim Square. But more conservative and rural Turks do like Erdogan and his pro Islamist policies and he has been re-elected twice.
Two final points: it seems that both Islamists and secularists in Turkey wanted to keep the country’s hands off the Syria civil war next door. Polls within Turkey show consistent opposition to Erdogan’s siding with the Syrian rebels.
And, it should also be said that Turks, in the Pew Global Attitudes Project going back a decade, don’t much like Russia or China or Russians or Chinese, so maybe it’s just that Turks, descendants of a great empire, don’t really like the powers that are on top today, including the United States.
Still, positive attitudes toward the U.S. by Turks before the 2003 Iraq invasion were above 50 percent, now they’re 21 percent. It’s worrying. Turkey is a NATO ally, one of the largest democracies in the world with a majority Muslim population. If attitudes toward the U.S. and Americans are low here, it bodes ill for the U.S. image in Muslim countries going forward.