Turkey's Uphill Battle to Stay Relevant in Washington

Matthew Petti

Turkey is provoking a political civil war in Washington, DC. With Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scrambling up the regional balance of power, U.S. officials don't know how to deal with their once-stalwart North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. Liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves—none of the old categories apply.

On one side, an unlikely coalition of evangelical Christians, left-wing human-rights activists, and War on Terror veterans think Turkey is more trouble than it's worth. On the other side, Cold Warriors and State Department insiders are warning against a messy divorce. And on a shoestring budget, Turkey's Kurdish rivals have managed to present themselves as a better alternative to the second-largest army in NATO.

Tensions are coming to head, with Turkey threatening this weekend to attack the U.S.-backed forces in Syria.

The government of Turkey spent nearly $6.6 million on U.S. politics in 2018, not counting the cost of maintaining an embassy, according to data published by the Center for Responsible Politics. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings show that the Syrian Democratic Council’s diplomatic office in Washington was operating on an annual budget of under $120,000, including the cost of running the office.

“My general feeling is in DC, people really don’t know what to do with Turkey,” said Hişyar Özsoy, a member of Turkish parliament who addressed the Congress last month.

The debate over Turkey is a glimpse of what U.S. foreign policy will look like in an increasingly multipolar world. As the United States is forced to prioritize between friends, interests, and values, different factions in Washington have their own ideas of America’s role.

“A lot of the senior leadership at the professional level in the State Department particularly have a long institutional memory of engaging with Turkey as a clear NATO ally, and as a country that served broader U.S. geopolitical objectives, particularly vis-a-vis the Soviet Union,” explained Center for a New American Security fellow Nicholas Heras. “The rising generation of leaders in the Pentagon—those officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—have had mixed experiences with the Turks.”

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