Jeffrey LewisMusings on Turkey

As Thanksgiving approaches, for Americans our thoughts naturally turn to turkey.  But since this is an arms control blog, our thoughts turn to Turkey — the country.

The United States is pressing Turkey on the issue of missile defense at the Lisbon Summit, leading my colleague at MIIS, Jessica Varnum, to wonder whether this is such a clever idea.

Musings on Turkey in the Run-up to Thanksgiving: Part 1

“If it is no feast or celebration, then why did my brother-in-law kiss me?”

I was rather taken aback when a male Turkish colleague grinningly conveyed this to me during a visit, last month, to Istanbul.  I laughed (mostly in confusion), soon to understand he was referring to the “gift” of missile defenses generously pressed on Turkey by its ally (or should that be brother-in-law), the United States.  This gem of a Turkish idiom essentially conveys the suspicion that the giver of an unexpected gift or favor may be motivated by a hidden agenda.  The not-so-hidden agenda would appear to be the U.S. expectation that Turkey will sabotage its relations with Iran by hosting radar stations on its territory for the new NATO system. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” may not be apt should the horse be Trojan.

While the United States is pursuing the missile defense system for anything but nefarious purposes—Iran is a threat and Turkey is adjacent to Iran—the U.S. government may be sacrificing one interest in favor of other more important interests if it chooses to continue to press Turkey into accepting the radar stations, and refuses to entertain other Turkish requests designed to decrease the proposed NATO system’s political costs.

Ongoing discussions between the United States and Turkey over whether Turkey will veto the proposed NATO missile shield at the upcoming summit, whether if accepted the system will base radar stations in Turkey, and other related concerns, have become something of a litmus test for the future of relations between Turkey and the West—or as a senior U.S. official recently put it to The Daily Telegraph, “Essentially we’ve told Turkey that missile-defence is an acid test of its commitment to the collective security arrangements it has with its western allies.”  Turkey has walked a fine line on the issue, as evinced in Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s October 31 remarks.  While it appears the Turks will not veto the proposed system, the devil is truly in the details. Ankara ‘s most recent gambit has been to attempt to co-opt the proposed system from within by insisting that a NATO system with radar stations on Turkish territory fall under a Turkish commander’s control.  Don’t mistake recent Turkish statements for a change of heart—they’re damage control plain and simple.  If they have to accept NATO missile defense, the Turks want to be certain it does as little harm to their strategic interests as possible.

While pressuring Turkey to accept the system’s existence may be necessary, is it wise for the United States to box a vital ally into a corner over the issue of radar stations, when other viable options exist for positioning the radar?  The missile defense system may never work particularly well anyway, and a “yes” from Turkey would have serious negative consequences for its domestic and regional politics.  Shouldn’t the alliance also consider providing Turkey some political cover by at least pretending the system isn’t directed at Iran?  Unsurprisingly, the Turks wonder this too.  A few years ago the political climate may have been ripe for placing Turkey at the center of an Iran-oriented missile shield, but regional politics have changed considerably.  As Foreign Minister Davutoglu asserted, “NATO should exclude any formula that confronts Turkey with a group of countries in its threat definitions and planning. … We do not want a Cold War zone or psychology around us.” While Turkey remains committed to its relationships with the United States and NATO, it also values its uniquely constructive relationship with Iran.  The proposed NATO missile defense system is therefore no precious gift.

Why should the United States care about—much less enable—Turkey’s positive relations with Iran?  Because you can’t negotiate with someone you don’t talk to, and over whom you possess very little leverage.  While the attempted fuel-swap deal back-fired, Turkey may yet prove important as a mediator between the West and Iran.  And because it is unclear that NATO missile defense is worth the price of the likely damage to U.S.-Turkish relations. Stuck in the unenviable position of sharing a border with Iran, beholden to Tehran for a large percentage of its energy supply needs, vulnerable to the possibility of a refugee crisis should its neighbor destabilize, and within easy striking distance of Iranian military power should the relationship take a fatally wrong turn, Turkey’s cost-benefit equation concerning negative relations with Iran is understandably much heavier on the costs side than are those of its geographically more distant Western allies.


  1. Nobody (History)

    So we’re supposed to help Turkey out because thy “may yet prove important to us” ?

    How ’bout we propose that if they show some flexibility on helping us with Iran, we’ll show some flexibility on helping them with Iran. It’s a two way street.

  2. Ataune (History)

    If the real motivation and target here is Iran, which I doubt, it sounds somehow hollow and ideologically motivated to think that a cosmetic political fig leaf will resolve the issue at hand for the US and by extension for NATO. Neither Turkey nor the rest of the world is today in the same geopolitical context that it was from 1980’s to early 2000’s.

    Turkey has witnessed US ineffective, maybe deliberately, efforts to bring its European NATO allies into accepting its membership request. It has been poured by the EU cold water after cold water with the not so hidden excuse of being a buffer Muslim state and therefore preferred outside the EU boundaries than inside. Turkey have seen Russia, a long term foe, playing masterfully the game of promoting itself in front of NATO as another “Christian” rampart on the eastern “front” (kind of second shoulder for Europe) against Muslim and eventually other Asians. Turkey has seen how America strategically misjudged its political power and its military and economic strength and crippled itself for a long haul.

    For the Turkish intelligentsia and political elite a remote but clear representation for the future is taking shape and the politicians are following thru bit by bit and in a focused way: An economic alliance on its Eastern flank which will enable it to play its historical role as a bridge between the West and the rising economic powers in the East.

  3. yousaf (History)

    Neither the SM3 or GMD have been tested under realistic conditions and would probably have no better than a 5% success rate against a surprise attack of a salvo of missiles, using decoys and countermeasures. Turkey would be smart not to sign on to such a dysfunctional system based on technical considerations alone let alone political ones. Much of Turkey’s energy comes from Iran.

    That said, since there are to be >400 interceptors on ~40 Aegis ships eventually, even a dysfunctional system should raise eyebrows in China and Russia, esp. since the platforms are mobile.

    Perhaps before making missile defense the acid test of Turkey’s commitment to NATO, NATO should make fundamental physics the acid-test of major security initiatives it launches.

    Lewis and Postol propose a more physics-friendly version of missile defense based on drones —

    but I would argue against even this based on basic flaws in the concept of attempting to defend against a strategic deterrent force.

    And I am sure Raytheon & Co. would find other reasons to join me in arguing against this cheap system that would waste only a small fraction of taxpayer funds that the current system wastes.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      As usual, Yousaf hits most of the most important points.

      The one he left out is that by buying into they myth that strategic missile defense interception in space makes technical sense, the Obama administration is committing the US to maintaining and expanding a kinetic energy antisatellite (KE-ASAT) system which does and will pose strategically serious threat to satellites in low Earth orbit. This is directly contrary to Obama’s campaign promises and greatly complicates any future space security regime. If China or Russia were to do such a thing, the US would go ballistic. But in fact, the Chinese are very likely to follow the US example.

      In the case of the European system, the administration is relying on SM-3, which is not a serious ASAT threat in its current Block I form, but the stated plan is to continue into Block II, which will be a serious ASAT.

      At the same time, the administration has not announced any plan to phase out the GMD system, which is a serious ASAT.

      This despite the by now well-known and well-understood fact that both systems can be easily defeated by simple countermeasures which Iran or North Korea would incorporate into any long-range nuclear ballistic missile they might produce, and which they could also incorporate into their conventional missiles.

      Such countermeasures are not used by satellites; countermeasures to ASAT are possible but are more difficult since they would have to accompany the satellite for the years of its lifetime and in many cases would interfere with the satellite’s mission.

      In addition to the reference Yousaf cited, anyone who doubts any of this should look at

      The facts are, again, well-known. There are certainly competent technical experts in the administration who understand them.

      In spite of this, the administration is pandering to the Republicans, Raytheon, et al., and selling out the future to a policy that will not produce an effective defense, will cost $Billions, and will make it very hard to prevent other nations from developing and deploying KE-ASAT systems and other antisatellite weapons which will threaten US satellites and jump-start a space arms race.

      Playing alliance politics with “missile defense” is one of the worst policy choices of the Obama administration. Here’s hoping the Turks, at least, will Just say No.

    • FSB (History)

      Don’t worry I am sure the new crop of republican rep’s in DC will stop missile defense and other white-elephant tax-wasting-projects to show how great fiscal conservatives they are.

  4. jeannick (History)

    the horse was Argive , the recipients were the Trojans

    This Iran as a threat to life on Earth is pretty hard to believe .
    The most likely scenario ,beside a waste of taxpayer money
    is to cheese off the Russians ,
    there is a powerful current in the U.S. polity who WANT a cold war , plenty of small and not so small pinprick have been deflating any “reset”
    The German/French are underwhelmed and the Turks totally not on board .
    They have swinging relation with Moscow and the NATO umbrella is , for them , starting to feel like a fetter

    • FSB (History)

      Indeed NATO’s new mission, it appears, is to have some sort of a new raison d’etre since the original one is gone. That new reason to rally the various countries is to field a massive unworkable missile defense system against a non-extent threat — a system that does not work and wastes taxpayer money, as mentioned above.

      NewsFlash: Iran neither has nukes nor ICBMs and reports of their nuclear weapons programme are grossly exaggerated by entities like ISIS and other domestic lobbies: defense and the pro-Likud ones figure prominently. On the other hand, many republicans are threat inflators out of ignorance rather than malice, foreign allegiance, or greed.

      e.g. The Polish FM has said Poland is really only going along to build good ties with the US not because there is any threat or because the system would be functional.

      See this article from Foreign Policy, eg:

      “What Poland doesn’t see is itself as a target of the missile threat from Iran, the country the nascent U.S. missile shield is supposedly designed to thwart.

      “If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in an interview with Foreign Policy during his trip to Washington Thursday. “

    • Ataune (History)


      “If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it,”

      Apart from the message conveyed the way this is quite rude and un-diplomatic, particularly coming from the foreign minister of a country enjoying normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Iran. Are sure this is the correct quote ?

    • FSB (History)

      I invite you to click on the link: the Polish FM appears to be speaking quite frankly. i.e. That Iran is not a threat and their support of missile defense is based solely on diplomatic reasons with no regard whatsoever to whether it even works or is even needed.

  5. Otfried (History)

    As far as I understand the Turkish arguments, Ankara
    * does not want NATO missile defense to damage it’s relations with neighbouring Iran
    * and to damage it’s role as an intermediary and credible partner in the offer for the research reactor fuel swap
    * objected naming Iran as a possible origin of a military attack on NATO-territory as well as naming Teheran directly as a possible source of a ballistic missile threat
    * and argued it wanted both the command over a Turkey based command center as well as NATO financial aid for building up a Patriot-missile-based line of missile defense in Turkey, while promissing not to veto a future NATO missile defense.

    These arguments reflect three basic points:
    a) Turkey does not share the urgency perceived by the U.S. and others in respect to the Iranian missile threat (given Turkish-Iranian relations)
    b) Turkey feels a needs to protect its sovereignty against interference by NATO-decisions into major interests and
    c) Turkey doesn’t want to be forced paying billions for buying e.g. Patriot missiles – to the contrary it has begun deliberations with Greece to mutually reduce defense expenditures with the aim of coping with the consequences of the financial and economic crisis.

    Taken together this is a reasonable set of arguments worth Allied consideration as well as some respect.

  6. olcay (History)

    To undersatnd the concerns of Turkey with regard to the policies towards Iran, read the excellent article by Prof.Mustafa Kibaroglu at the following link