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It was the stuff of nationalist drivel and mad conspiracy, but in Turkey it was an instant best-seller. Almost 15 years ago, Turkish novelists Orkun Ucar and Burak Turna penned a thriller titled Metal Storm, which describes a U.S.-Turkey war in which the United States occupies Istanbul, a Turkish agent detonates a stolen nuclear warhead in Washington, and Russia and China ultimately come to Turkey’s rescue. While the premise was far-fetched, many Turkish commentators at the time suggested a U.S.-Turkey conflict could become reality. It is time to recognize that they were right.
No, the United States is neither going to launch a surprise attack on Turkey nor engage its putative NATO ally in the next several years, but the trajectory that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken Turkey suggests that enmity and conflict, rather than partnership and cooperation, are inevitable. While unlikely, it is no longer inconceivable that Turkey and the United States would one day be shooting at each other.
Consider the path down which Erdogan has taken Turkey:
The West has a Turkey problem, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. Yes, Turkey is strategic, but it is lost. It has flipped into Russia’s camp, just as Egypt and Libya did during the Cold War. The difference then was that the West recognized the setback and moved to contain it; they did not pretend the alliance persisted and allow enemies open access to defense secrets nor share intelligence or latest-generation aircraft with an enemy.
While it is fashionable among diplomats and some analysts to argue that the transactional nature of Erdogan’s Turkey requires more and targeted engagement rather than coercion, such efforts have a very poor track record. Indeed, for much of the past 15 years, Turkish enmity has grown against the backdrop of NATO denial and Bush and Obama-era denial, coddling, and engagement. Rather than smart diplomacy, efforts to engage Erdogan now uncomfortably appear like efforts to coddle Saddam Hussein into moderation three decades ago. On June 15, 1990, the late Sen. Arlen Specter explained his opposition to military sanctions on Iraq. “There is an opportunity, or may be an opportunity, to pursue discussions with Iraq,” he said, “And I think that it is not the right time to impose sanctions.” When Specter took to the floor of the Senate, the notion of war with Iraq was considered crazy. But less than two months later, Saddam’s actions put the United States on war footing. What once was unimaginable became a possibility.
As Erdogan chooses his path, it behooves the United States and Europe to recognize that what once was outside the realm of possibility is now possible. And while all efforts should be taken to prevent such a scenario, at a minimum it is time to isolate rather than partner with Erdogan. It is time to remove all American personnel (and any remaining nuclear warheads) from the Incirlik Airbase and find another home, before repelling nationalist mobs at Incirlik itself becomes a flashpoint for conflict. It is essential for U.S. national security to cut Turkey off from intelligence sharing and military technology, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and recognize that prevention of conflict mandates better preparing regional states like Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Iraq, as well as Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, to also counter the Turkish challenge. Historians can debate who lost Turkey, but what is obvious is that Turkey is not simply no longer a friend and ally, but rather it has become an adversary and potential belligerent.
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