Comments last week by Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who drew parallels between Moscow’s “unsafe and unprofessional” behavior following the near-collision between US and Russian warships in the Philippine Sea and Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, pointed to something much more profound and significant than the usual occasional statements.
Ahead of talks with his Greek counterpart Evangelos Apostolakis at the Pentagon, Shanahan was asked to comment on Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. He said there were similarities, and although he cautioned against tying the two behaviors, the heart of the matter does not change.
Turkey has proved a difficult ally for Washington in the past two decades. Shanahan’s remarks underscore the line of thought that currently permeates America’s foreign policy and defense establishment. Personally, it brings to mind the frustration of American officials back in the spring of 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War after Ankara refused to authorize the deployment of US troops on Turkish soil.
A go-ahead would have allowed the US to quickly open a northern front in Iraq, making war much easier and reducing the chances of substantial American losses. I will never forget the outburst of an American official against NATO ally Turkey a few months later at the Pentagon who off the record said: “Because of Turkey’s stance, American soldiers lost their lives, and this will be very hard to forget in this building.”
Annoyance is gradually giving way to indignation, which is, in turn, being consolidated as Washington’s official position. The mood is indicated by the repeated comments made by American diplomats who are cautioning Ankara against continuing with its drilling for hydrocarbon resources within the contours of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). And of course, there is tension with Washington over Ankara’s decision to acquire the Russian-made S-400 missile system.
It’s still early. The meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that will take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka could beget developments.
However, anyone who has lived in Washington and has experienced how the US establishment works, and how its approaches are formed over time, knows that a huge change has clearly taken place. Frustration with Turkey is very much real and it runs deep.