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Is It Time to Carve Turkey Out of NATO?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to renew his hold on power in elections next month. His authority is not yet absolute: a judge recently ordered the release of several journalists convicted on dubious terrorism charges. Although they are now free on appeal, few observers believe they will ultimately prevail in a judicial system dominated by Erdogan.

Since the attempted coup in July 2016, the government has arrested around 160,000 people, imprisoned an estimated 50,000, and tossed another 152,000 public employees from their jobs. Many of the latter are effectively unemployable, denied government work while private employers are afraid to hire them. Substantial numbers of Turks have lost jobs at private companies responding to government pressure.

Among those arrested was Taner Kilic, the Turkey chair of Amnesty International. Journalists also have endured Erdogan’s wrath: 300 have been detained and 160 have been tried so far. Personal assets and entire businesses have been confiscated, and more than 1,500 non-governmental organizations have been shut down, mostly for alleged terrorist offenses.

Turkey’s tilt toward dictatorship does not make it unique among America’s allies. At least the Turkish government still holds elections that allow some genuine opposition. In fact, Erdogan advanced the presidential and parliamentary elections from 2019 to June 24 to improve his chances, though few imagine him losing.

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However, Turkey’s political environment is still far from free. Human Rights Watch pointed out that last year’s constitutional referendum, which barely passed, was conducted “in an environment of heavy media censorship, with many journalists and parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish opposition in jail.” Last month the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged the end of the state of emergency. He observed: “It is difficult to imagine how credible elections can be held in an environment where dissenting views and challenges to the ruling party are penalized so severely.”

More serious for Washington, Ankara no longer is a true U.S. ally. Turkey’s activities increasingly inhibit important American international objectives and are inconsistent with its membership in NATO.

The Muslim state gained its reputation as a critical ally during the Cold War, guarding Europe’s southeastern flank. Yet after downing a Russian plane in 2015, Erdogan did more than mend relations with the Putin government: Turkey formed a working relationship with Moscow in Syria. Even though they disagree on the appropriate fate of the Assad government, both want the U.S. out of northern Syria.

Turkey’s incursion directly threatens U.S. policy. Kurdish forces were America’s most faithful ally against ISIS in Syria. They unsurprisingly felt betrayed by the U.S., and may be less than enthusiastic about backing other American objectives. Worse, the Turkish invasion has placed the United States in between the combatants, leading Turkish officials and American military officers to exchange threats as Ankara threatened to attack U.S. forces based near Kurdish militias.

Ankara has always prioritized combatting Kurdish militias and preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state along its border over fighting the Islamic State. Indeed, in the early years of Syria’s civil war, Ankara cooperated with ISIS, tolerating the cross-border movement of men and materiel and sale of captured oil.

Turkey once earned brownie points in Washington for supporting Israel. However, Erdogan has since shifted in an Islamist direction and taken a distinctly hostile stance toward Israel. Cyprus also remains divided by Turkey’s 1974 invasion. In the name of its client, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Ankara has actively interfered in Cyprus’s attempt to develop off-shore natural gas deposits.

Ankara also threatens Greece, another NATO ally. Turkey never accepted Greek sovereignty over nearby islands and the surrounding sea, and Turkish air and sea incursions have increased in recent months. The game turned deadly in April, when a Greek pilot died in a crash after intercepting two Turkish planes in Greek airspace. Greece just announced plans to spend $1.45 billion to upgrade its F-16 interceptors to better match Turkey’s. Ankara’s pending purchase of Russian S-400 missiles poses another challenge to the transatlantic alliance.

If Turkey acted like a real ally it would be easier to tolerate Ankara’s growing authoritarianism, including when Erdogan’s visiting bodyguards literally beat peaceful American protesters [1] outside the Turkish embassy in May 2017. After all, Washington has rarely allowed a few human rights violations to get in the way of a beautiful geopolitical friendship. But the Erdogan government fails on both counts.

Erdogan was a liberator when his party first won in 2002; many liberals backed the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, as it ended the military’s dominant role in Turkish politics. However, as the decade came to an end, corruption increased. Erdogan demonstrated less tolerance for opposition. He launched political trials of generals and other critics, investigated businessmen who opposed him, and seized control of media companies. He launched a wave of repression against the Kurds. His ambitions grew along with his intolerance of criticism: he even filed charges against schoolchildren for insulting him.

Then the coup attempt became his Reichstag Fire, offering a perfect excuse for additional repression. In March, the UN Human Rights Office detailed abuses of the state of emergency, first imposed in July 2016. The result has been “profound human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people—from arbitrary deprivation of the right to work and to freedom of movement, to torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions and infringements of the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

Erdogan directed his fire at purported followers of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who without evidence the Turkish president blamed for orchestrating the coup. He defined membership in FETO, the Erdogan-proclaimed Fethullah Terrorist Organization, very broadly: holding an account at a bank owned by a Gulenist or attending a school run by a Gulenist is enough. In practice, Gulenist and terrorist have become labels applied to most anyone critical of Erdogan’s person or policies.

Every independent assessment of Turkish human rights is negative. Amnesty International observes: “Dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, with journalists, political activists and human rights defenders among those targeted. Instances of torture continued to be reported.” Demonstrations have been banned. Government officials enjoy “pervasive impunity” for abuses. “Public sector workers continued to face summary dismissal for alleged unspecified links to terrorist groups.”

The State Department’s latest human rights report runs 64 pages. It highlights as the most significant issues: “alleged torture of detainees in official custody; allegations of forced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention under the state of emergency of tens of thousands, including members of parliament and two Turkish-national employees of the U.S. Mission to Turkey, for alleged ties to terrorist groups or peaceful legitimate speech; executive interference with independence of the judiciary, affecting the right to a fair trial and due process; political prisoners, including numerous elected officials; severe restriction of freedoms of expression and media, including imprisonment of scores of journalists, closing media outlets, and criminalization of criticism of government policies or officials; blocking websites and content; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly and association; interference with freedom of movement.”

Unsurprisingly, there is an increasing exodus of the educated elite, including business and opinion leaders and students. But even distance offers little protection: Erdogan has pursued his critics abroad, dragging back dissenters from friendly states such as Kosovo. He’s set loose Interpol against people merely accused of following Fethullah Gulen. His minions are even seeking some Americans, such as Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, for trial on bizarre charges.

Of course, there is little that the U.S. can do to transform Turkey internally, short of invasion. The Turkish population is deeply hostile to America and Erdogan may gain politically from any public attacks by Washington.

However, the Trump administration should still respond to Turkey’s ongoing malformation. On the security side, the U.S. should downgrade its reliance on Incirlik Air Base and remove its nuclear weapons. The latter could become hostages in any serious confrontation. Moreover, Washington should propose the creation of a process to reassess NATO membership. Ankara almost certainly would not be invited to join today, so why should it stay?

As for human rights, the administration should make Turkey pay a price for the unfair prosecution and incarceration of U.S. citizens. Cutting off weapons sales would be one possible step. The U.S. should also protect Turkish citizens in America from political prosecution back home: extradition should be allowed only through appropriate court processes where the proceedings have a reasonable chance of being fairly conducted.

Turkey once was viewed as a Western success story, a country that would be a model Islamic democracy. That tale always was oversold, but today it has no meaning. Washington should take a much colder view of a country that increasingly shares neither America’s interests nor its values. The two governments should cooperate when appropriate, but Washington should abandon its illusion that Turkey remains an ally in anything but name.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "Is It Time to Carve Turkey Out of NATO?"

#1 Comment By Bond, James On May 23, 2018 @ 10:27 pm

To whom it may concern,
Turkey IS NATO.

#2 Comment By AhmedUcan On May 23, 2018 @ 11:42 pm

Turkey doesn’t need murderous NATO, it’s NATO that needs Turkey as it’s base for it’s operations to destablize China and Russia.
Most Turks would be very happy to see NATO go, so the country could experience some freedom from the parallel state they and CIA set up in the country under the guise of a cult called the Gulen Movement.

#3 Comment By Mark Thomason On May 24, 2018 @ 12:43 am

Israel and friends are fighting with Turkey, so they are trying to poison NATO to get at their enemy du jour.

When they got along with Turkey’s nightmare right wing military dictatorship, they were just fine with all this.

Turkey should stay in NATO because it is good for NATO to have that position and those forces on its side.

And by the way, Israel should stay out of NATO, because it is a crazy expansionist warmonger with nuclear weapons, and would drag NATO into serious trouble.

#4 Comment By Talk Turkey On May 24, 2018 @ 4:19 am

I mean really. The question answers itself, no?

The US alliance with Turkey is obviously more important than the passing vagaries of Recep Erdogan. If we can stomach relations with parasitic, morally repulsive “friends” like Israel under the Likud Party, Egypt under Sisi, or Saudi Arabia under MBS, we can put up with Erdogan for the sake of a valuable strategic asset like Turkey.

The Turkish population is deeply hostile to America and Erdogan may gain politically from any public attacks by Washington.

Gee, I wonder why … could it be because we and our buddies Saudi Arabia and Israel destabilized the Middle East? Because we openly supported terrorist groups that kill Turks? Because we now equally openly do Israeli and Saudi bidding, killing, maiming, and displacing coreligionists of the Turkish man in the street?

America should hang on to Turkey and dump the main causes of American misery and fear in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Relations with our old ally Turkey would improve almost immediately.

As for Erdogan, he’ll be gone in due course, but the Black Sea and Dardenelles will still be there.

And so will the refugees, by the way, a basic question that is completely unconsidered in the “analysis” above. Where will the refugees be? You know, the refugees running away from the bloody messes produced by our wars for Israel? The millions of refugees currently housed in Turkey, rather than in Europe or the US? The refugees who politically destabilized Europe in 2015 when only a million came in?

Are you ready for the effects of 2.5 million Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, and Yemeni refugees flooding into Europe after you stupidly kick Turkey out of NATO instead of kicking Israel and Egypt off the dole?

#5 Comment By tz On May 24, 2018 @ 7:02 am

Time to carve the USA out of NATO.

Speaking of reneged agreements, we said we weren’t going to expand NATO to Russia’s borders, but we are pushing to add Ukraine after adding most of eastern Europe and the Baltics.

I thought the cold war ended half a lifetime ago. What will be interesting is between Israel and Iran, the EU might leave NATO because they don’t like the proxy wars, and see Israel as a Jewish theocracy oppressing Palestinians – and this was before the Muslim refugee invasion (I’m not saying I agree, only that its their view).

Cato for NATO seems part of the Koch addiction.

#6 Comment By Keyser Soze On May 24, 2018 @ 9:36 am

America should recognize the Armenian Genocide as well.

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On May 24, 2018 @ 10:22 am

The latest “let Putin win in Ukraine” pretext.

#8 Comment By Dennis On May 24, 2018 @ 10:38 am

What it’s really time to do is disband NATO altogether, as should have been done after the fall of the USSR and the end of the Warsaw Pact.

Instead, to justify it’s ongoing existence and sinecures for Brussels bureaucrats, NATO has been transformed from a defensive pact into an aggressive, expansionist monster seeking ever more war. It is now a pox on the world and a criminal organization.

#9 Comment By The Other Eric On May 24, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

Turkey may be happier as a Russian Ally. But I am not certain that would serve our interests and it would exasperate the conflicts in the Balkans.

#10 Comment By Stephen J, On May 24, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

I believe the time has come to “Carve” NATO and put it on trial, more info at link below.
[2]

#11 Comment By Stephen J, On May 24, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

I wrote the article at link below in 2015.
—————
December 3, 2015
“Is NATO a Gang of Turkeys”?

Turkey according to numerous reports has been assisting ISIS. As have other NATO “allies.” Yet, members of NATO have made no attempt to disassociate themselves from Turkey….
[more info at link below]
[3]

#12 Comment By Andre Kenji de Sousa On May 24, 2018 @ 1:37 pm

Turkey controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles(Basically, it allows NATO to block the largest Russian ports from reaching the ocean). That alone makes Turkey the largest strategic asset of NATO.

#13 Comment By Will Harrington On May 24, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

As the US becomes increasingly independent of mid-east oil, it is difficult to see what geopolitical interests we actually have in the middle-east. One thing that is clear is that a mutual defence agreement involving Turkey carries far more risk than benefit for us. If we are actually attacked, will Turkey be of real benefit to us? Not really. On the other hand, Turkey did shoot down a Russian plane. Is it likely that Turkey could involve us in a war if we are shackled to them by NATO? Yup. Does Russia turning Turkey into a vassal state threaten us the least bit? Nope. This is just us thinking we are vital to the stability of the world when recent events demonstrate that, without a clear understanding of our own national interests but the determination to exercise hegemony we have destabilized parts of the world. Our leaders really need to rethink what involves our interests. Shipping through the Dardanelles? No. The suez and Panama Canals? Yes. The Horn of Africa and the Straights of Malacca? Yes. The Straights of Gibraltar? Yes. Turkey gains us nothing, beyond playing stupid, useless brinkmanship games with Russia. We gain no advantage by reviving the Great Game and trying to fill Britain’s role against nineteenth century Russia.

#14 Comment By b. On May 24, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

I suppose we are to cue the chants for “regime change” in Turkey next.

#15 Comment By Howard On May 24, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

NATO should have ended no later than 1995, when it was clear the Cold War was really over. *ANY* organization will work to justify its own existence, though, and an alliance structured for wars will create wars if necessary. At a minimum, the USA should pull out of NATO, then the Europeans should give Asia Minor the boot.

#16 Comment By SteveK9 On May 24, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

Maybe Erdogan doesn’t feel like being a US ally, after we tried to kill him. That tends to upset most people.

‘Turkey’s incursion directly threatens U.S. policy.’

US Policy: invade yet another country illegally and attempt to dismember it, to produce another failed state like Libya, and remove any potential threat to Israel.

#17 Comment By Fsy On May 25, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

It would be best thing for Russian foreign policy, since Putin want Turkey out of NATO more than anyone.

#18 Comment By Daniel Baker On May 27, 2018 @ 11:49 am

The wild paranoid accusations of US involvement in the military coup that we see in these comments are, unfortunately, a pretty good representation of what a majority of Turks believe after several years of AKP propaganda with dissenting journalists being intimidated, jailed, or murdered.

What I do not see, though, is how kicking Turkey out of NATO solves anything. Is it going to make Erodgan less authoritarian? Friendlier to us? Less likely to cozy up to Putin? On the contrary, it only seems likely to strengthen and accelerate Turkey’s alliance with Russia. What concrete benefits does Turkish expulsion offer to the USA, or to NATO, other than indulging our personal feeling of disgust for Erdogan’s tyranny? Indeed, what concrete benefits does NATO offer to the USA at all now?

#19 Comment By TR On May 27, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

I think I agree with Will Harrington. I would only add a Kissingerian observation: Turkey and Russia, given their long, long history, can never be fast friends.

#20 Comment By Luke On May 27, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

NATO or no NATO, Turkey and Erdogan are trouble, and trouble to come.

#21 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On May 28, 2018 @ 1:04 am

The reality is that NATO should be disbanded and go away.
What exactly do you call mass slaughter in numerous nations by NATO bombers?
What business does this freaky organization have outside Europe anyway?
What business of the warmongers in D.C. and Britain and France is it what a nation does in it’s affairs?
After all, these so-called civilized nations are responsible for supporting the nations that murder civilians left and right.
From Central America, such as when people like Oliver North were around, and now in the Middle East.
Think about the above truths and dig what I’m saying.

#22 Comment By Potomac Mills On May 28, 2018 @ 3:50 am

@Will Harrington — “If we are actually attacked, will Turkey be of real benefit to us? Not really. On the other hand, Turkey did shoot down a Russian plane. Is it likely that Turkey could involve us in a war if we are shackled to them by NATO? “

We’re past the point of caring about considerations like this. After all, we let ourselves be attacked because of Israel. And after the 9/11 attack, Israel proved to be worthless to us. Any Congressmen calling for Israel to be cut out of our alliance system? Or even kicked off the US taxpayer dole? No. Turkey at least fights every once and a while, nobody ever attacked us because of Turkey, and Turkey more or less pays its way as an ally. Plus, Turkey is housing and feeding a few million of the refugees created by our wars for Israel. The idea of Israel taking them in is of course ridiculous.

Want to get rid of Turkey? Fine – most Americans want us out of the Middle East and maybe even out of NATO. But let’s keep our priorities straight and get rid of the real dangers first.

#23 Comment By Jones On May 28, 2018 @ 7:52 am

Is this a call for “regime change” in Turkey?

Sir, did you get lost on your way to Neocon Quarterly?

#24 Comment By Jeeves On May 28, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

@Potomac Mills
Plus, Turkey is housing and feeding a few million of the refugees created by our wars for Israel. The idea of Israel taking them in is of course ridiculous.

One other notable difference between Israel and Turkey: the government of the former would not jail and/or torture you for writing your cringe-worthy comment.

#25 Comment By William Dalton On May 28, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

Jeeves:

“@Potomac Mills
Plus, Turkey is housing and feeding a few million of the refugees created by our wars for Israel. The idea of Israel taking them in is of course ridiculous.”

“One other notable difference between Israel and Turkey: the government of the former would not jail and/or torture you for writing your cringe-worthy comment.”

Israel only jails and tortures the Arabs whose lands they are already occupying. That is why they won’t allow any more to return to their homelands.

Turkey, unfortunately, sees Jews, and therefore Christians in the U.S., as being behind the Gulen movement. This is why they have holding for trial an American Presbyterian pastor who has been serving the church in Turkey for more than twenty years.

#26 Comment By ZenitFan On May 29, 2018 @ 3:57 am

@Dennis: Exactly! NATO is now nothing but a welfare alliance. It props up the nanny states of the other members, which could not be sustained if those nations had to fully pay for their own defense. And of course NATO props up our ultimate welfare state, the military-industrial complex.

#27 Comment By Where is Self-defense On May 29, 2018 @ 11:29 am

While the author acknowledges many of the disturbing nuances, most comment-ers better understand the more relevant question: Why does NATO still exist? Apparently the only role it serves is to agitate for a humanity-ending war with Russia, and to provide diplomatic cover for various US invasions. Neither improve our security at all, quite the opposite.

#28 Comment By Potomac Mills On May 29, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

@Jeeves — “@Potomac Mills
Plus, Turkey is housing and feeding a few million of the refugees created by our wars for Israel. The idea of Israel taking them in is of course ridiculous.

One other notable difference between Israel and Turkey: the government of the former would not jail and/or torture you for writing your cringe-worthy comment.”

It isn’t a notable difference, because obviously Turkey would not jail and/or torture anyone for writing that “cringe-worthy” comment.

It’s hardly “cringe-worthy” to remark on what is obviously true, namely that Israel proved worthless to America when the chips were down, seventeen long years of Israelis sitting it out while Americans fought and died. Or to say that it is Turkey rather than Israel who is taking in the millions of refugees caused by our Middle East wars. That’s “millions”. While Israel is distinguishing itself as a humanitarian haven by expelling thirty some thousand Africans who went there (stupidly) thinking they might be given asylum.

#29 Comment By PG On May 30, 2018 @ 9:51 am

The United States should quietly, secretly immediately, remove its nuclear weapons form Turkey and return them to U.S. soil. Then make a public announcement to that effect while simultaneously announcing our full support for the Kurds. Then denounce Erdogan as the dictator he is. Shame him publicly as much as reasonably possible and then boot him from NATO once and for all.

#30 Comment By Neo-Trojan On May 30, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

@PG – “The United States should quietly, secretly immediately, remove its nuclear weapons form Turkey and return them to U.S. soil. Then make a public announcement to that effect while simultaneously announcing our full support for the Kurds. Then denounce Erdogan as the dictator he is. Shame him publicly as much as reasonably possible and then boot him from NATO once and for all.”

Not a bad idea, but only as part of a complete withdrawal from the Mideast. If we dumped Turkey while still openly supporting countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt, what would be the point? On what moral basis could we “denounce” Erdogan while toasting the likes of Sisi, Netanyahu, or MBS?

And unfortunately, most of your proposals are non-starters. The chance of removing nukes “in secret” from Turkey seems pretty low. We can’t announce our “full” support for the Kurds, because we ourselves have officially designated major Kurdish groups as terrorists. And for better or worse, the US by itself can’t kick anybody out of NATO anyway, so the point is moot unless Turkey declares war on Greece or something.

#31 Comment By DonM On May 30, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

US should leave Turkey, as well as NATO to decide for themselves. There’s no moral purpose for these sick warlike involvements.

#32 Comment By strawmen On May 31, 2018 @ 9:01 am

@Jeeves : “One other notable difference between Israel and Turkey: the government of the former would not jail and/or torture you for writing your cringe-worthy comment.”

What crap. Not only does Israel regularly arrest and torture political dissidents, Israel has worked very hard and for a very long time to criminalize anti-Israel speech in foreign countries, including here in America. It’s hardly surprising, either – according to the International Red Cross, torture is more popular in Israel than in any country except Nigeria, with more than half of Israelis approving of it, far more than Turkey, though (to our shame) not many more than in the US.

#33 Comment By Charlie Kelly On May 31, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

The shills are out in force for Turkey!

None of these opinions/comments came from conservatives. Which begs the question why are these shills the only responses on this article?!

The perception I am getting from the types of comments on here is that most of these came from maybe 3-4 individuals working together from Turkey to reduce the quality of discussion.

What a shame.

Keep up the good work American Conservative. Your message did not fall on deaf ears.

#34 Comment By pin the tail on the hasbara On June 1, 2018 @ 11:43 am

Charlie Kelly wrote “The perception I am getting from the types of comments on here is that most of these came from maybe 3-4 individuals working together from Turkey to reduce the quality of discussion.”

Ho ho! Somebody’s colloquial English skills need work!

#35 Comment By Riley Neilsen On September 14, 2018 @ 1:50 am

I’d rather see the Russians push the Turks into the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and take complete control of the Turkish landmass. The Turks are squatting on Christian land, and that should be dealt with before another century passes. Besides, no one int he region would miss them except the Germans and the French who are too busy filling their nations up with the Turks and their muslism neighbors! Who cares about control of the Bosporus, Russians are good Christian people – the Turks are not!

#36 Comment By Yanni On April 3, 2019 @ 9:26 pm

Really, The USA has no authority to kick another country out of NATO. So why did you write this article in the first place?