Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has made it a priority to cultivate a stronger American alliance with Turkey, a secular, Muslim-majority country that has for decades occupied a pivotal position between the West and other Islamic nations.
But the U.S. partnership with Turkey, which Obama hailed in a 2009 speech in Ankara, became strained yet again, when the president announced the beginning of aerial strikes against the Libyan regime led by Col. Muammar Qadhafi — and when Turkey delayed his plan to hand over responsibility for a no-fly zone to NATO.
Urgent, high-level U.S. diplomacy ultimately secured Turkey's cooperation in allowing NATO air patrols over Libya. But the conflict was the latest in a series of rifts between Washington and Ankara, including conflicts over Iran and easing diplomatic relations with neighboring Armenia, that have frustrated the Obama administration and hampered U.S. regional foreign policies.
The president and his aides have cultivated a relationship with the nation from the earliest days of his administration. Acknowledging the tension that followed the Iraq war, which Turkey opposed, Obama pledged a fresh start.
“You will have a partner in the United States,” he declared in a speech during a two-day visit to Ankara in April 2009.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said intervention would be 'totally counterproductive.' | AP Photo
Yet when American allies like England and France called for intervention to stop Qadhafi's onslaught against pro-democracy rebels, Turkey strongly opposed military action. That stance put Turkey at odds with much of the rest of the Western world, particularly the United States.
“Military intervention by NATO in Libya or any other country would be totally counterproductive,” Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said just before the military campaign began. “In addition to being counterproductive, such an operation could have dangerous consequences.”
Hugh Pope, a regional expert at the International Crisis Group, said Turkey “has an ambition for a high-minded, pro-democracy position on the Middle East,” but other factors were likely in play. In Libya, he said, Turkey “was, and is, constrained by enormous individual interests: 25,000 workers [in Libya], more than $15 billion in outstanding contracts [and] a public opinion that is enormously skeptical of Western intentions in the Middle East.”
When it came time to secure NATO's cooperation with the handover of the no-fly zone and implementation of the humanitarian mission, the administration again was forced to mediate a conflict between France and Turkey, which sought to limit the scope of NATO's military involvement in Libya. To resolve the stalemate, Obama placed two phone calls to Erdogan on Libya in recent weeks, pushing for consensus on NATO's role in Libya.
But the final compromise came after a series of high-level calls between the Turkish foreign minister and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The Turks also needed a compromise here,” said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official for Middle East policy. “If there was no deal, the White House would have been mightily pissed ... it would have been a bridge too far for the Turks to cross because there have been so many instances when the Turks have been very difficult for the U.S. recently. One more would have taxed Obama's patience.”
In 2009, the Turks nearly scuttled a historic agreement with Armenia that Clinton had personally traveled to Europe to secure. Turkey has also strengthened ties with Iran in defiance of U.S. and United Nations sanctions, to the annoyance of many within the Obama administration.
Still, in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's regime threatens a violent crackdown against anti-government protesters, Turkey's early and demonstrative cooperation with the West could play a critical role in preventing U.S. intervention, experts say.
“I think that Syria will come into the equation, and even Iran — that hasn't gone away,” Bulent Aliriza, founder of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “These [conflicts] are inevitable in the post-Cold War era, but the question is whether you can manage it.”