Since the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been fraying. Without the common Soviet threat, NATO has struggled to justify its existence. Frankly, it has outlived its usefulness. Yet, despite what many of his detractors claim, President Donald J. Trump has not broken NATO. That honor falls to Trump’s vainglorious predecessor, Barack Obama, the man who presidential historian Michael Beschloss believed to have been the “smartest guy ever to become president.”
Making a Turkey Fly: Modern NATO
Take the present problems with America’s NATO partner, Turkey. Since the 1990s, Islamism has been on the rise in Turkey. Everyone knew it. Whereas during the Cold War, Turkey was governed by a pro-American, secular autocracy, today it is ruled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a totalitarian Islamist who fancies himself the sultan of the new Ottoman Empire. For years, Erdoğan has cracked down on any semblance of democracy in Turkey. Abroad, he has engaged in an increasing level of hostility directed not only against his NATO partners, like Greece, but also against American interests in the Middle East.
Bear in mind that Turkey is home to two of America’s most important military bases (Incirlik Air Base and Izmir Air Station) for both Europe and the Middle East, as well as a country that houses at least 50 U.S. nuclear weapons.
It is easy to lay the blame for the breakdown in U.S.–Turkey relations at the feet of the overtly imperial and Islamist Erdoğan regime. Yet, this would be unfair. After all, the Obama administration refused to maintain a Patriot missile defense battery in Turkey in 2013 despite Turkey having officially requested the presence of such a system. At the time, Turkey feared violence from the escalating Syrian Civil War spilling into its territory and wanted to have some measure of defense against that rising violence.
The Obama administration did initially approve the moving of the Patriot missile battery into Turkey under the flag of NATO — albeit tacitly. Inevitably, though, NATO removed the battery from Turkey — much to Turkey’s chagrin. Turkey’s government then offered to purchase the system outright. The Obama White House balked, fearing that Turkey would gain access to proprietary American defense technology, replicate that technology, and then hand it off to American rivals.
Of course, most American elites have no compunction about their support for Pakistan or Saudi Arabia in these areas — countries with a terrible track record of anti-Americanism.
Given the wider geopolitical ramifications for the United States — and the fact that Turkey was entitled to the same level of defense that other NATO countries were — selling Turkey such technology or paying to maintain a Patriot missile system in Turkey would have been the most expedient way to preserve the NATO alliance. Obama wasn’t interested in saving NATO.
Obama Hated Traditional American Partners
Instead, the Obama administration opted to push the Turks away from the Western alliance. In turn, Turkey became more politically radical and anti-American. Not all of these changes were because of President Obama’s continued neglect of Turkey. But much of these negative changes were exacerbated by the Obama administration’s refusal to treat Turkey as the NATO partner that it is.
Further, President Obama, and later, Trump, supported the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. The problem was that Turkey viewed the Syrian Kurds as terrorists who were closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist organization in Turkey that is responsible for the deaths of more than 60,000 innocent Turks over the course of 40 years. The continued American support of Syria’s Kurds, coupled with NATO’s refusal to provide adequate air defenses to Turkey, sent Ankara over the edge. Ultimately, Turkey switched sides in the ongoing Syrian Civil War — moving away from the anti-Bashar Assad side to the Russian-and-Iranian-backed Assad forces.
In the words of Jim Townsend and Rachel Ellehuus, the two former Obama administration officials most responsible for managing the U.S.–Turkey military relationship, “Ankara came to view its missile defense requests as a litmus test for how much NATO really cared about Turkey.” Obama’s feckless policy toward Turkey not only drove Turkey into the waiting arms of Russia but also created an irreparable crack in the NATO alliance. Last year, Turkey took possession of the Russian-built S-400 missile defense system after Ankara abandoned any hope of acquiring its desired Patriot missiles from the United States, its NATO partner.
Trump Is Trying to Save NATO
President Trump, who has been accused of trying to kill NATO (but has, in fact, made it stronger since assuming office), is apparently trying to save NATO by salvaging U.S.–Turkish relations. In the past several days, the Trump administration authorized the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria, thereby ensuring that Turkey would be able to march into Syria and slaughter their Kurdish foes. Thankfully, the Syrian Kurds managed to get Bashar al-Assad to deploy forces to protect them from the Turkish onslaught. Of course, Trump’s actions indicated to Turkey that the United States would respect Turkish security concerns about the Kurds.
In response to the heavy-handed Turkish incursion into northern Syria, though, the Trump administration has imposed onerous sanctions on America’s NATO ally, Turkey. Also, it is being prevented from gaining access to America’s F-35 fighter jet, further eroding NATO’s collective defenses. Meanwhile, the Turkish Navy has sent 20 warships (and some submarines) to encircle Cyprus, invoking the ire of both fellow NATO partner Greece (Turkey’s historic regional rival), and that of Egypt, another U.S. partner. Things have gotten so bad for the NATO alliance regarding Turkey that Washington had to plot how to covertly evacuate the 50 nuclear weapons it has maintained there since the Cold War.
None of this would have happened had Obama minded the store in Europe for his eight years in office.
Face it: Obama broke NATO. Trump is trying — vainly — to fix it. And Turkey is just putting NATO out of its misery by exposing the sham that it is.